by Sarah West
Though they require all of summer’s sunlight and heat to reach maturity and are ready for harvest by September, we call these starchy inflatables winter squash, a nod to the tough, waxy skin that keeps them edible well into the rainy season. Delightful in their diversity, fall harvested squash are the perfect vessel for our transition from fresh produce to storage foods. Like painted gondolas, we let them carry our imaginations to a time when the days are short, the kitchen is cozy, and the scent of oven-roasted squash fills the air with opulence.
As a gardener, what draws me to winter squash is not just their bright colors and curving shapes (which, like most shoppers, is what makes me to want to buy one), but their patience. Arriving after months of demanding harvests—vegetables that ripen with relentless immediacy and must be used within the week—it is lovely to set such beautiful artifacts aside, to be allowed to wait.
The majority of the winter squash varieties that come to market not only allow delayed gratification, they prefer it. Though squash selection increases in abundance with each October week, it is not until winter that most will be at their prime. Belonging to a subcategory of the squash family known as Cucurbita maxima (‘max’ for short), the kuris, kabochas, hubbards, turbans, bananas, buttercups, sweet meats, marina di Chioggias, galeux d’Eysines, or Queensland blues are best once they’ve been cured. This simply requires stashing them in a corner of your kitchen where they can quietly continue to metabolize their starches into sugars.
The curing process deepens and sweetens a max’s flavor, increasing its nutritional value in tandem. If you’ve brought a max home from the market already this fall (when, it’s true, you have first dibs and the best selection), you’ll be rewarded with an inimitable winter delicacy—but only if you resist the urge to slice it open just yet. Like fine wine, a max’s most complex and interesting flavors continue developing long after harvest. Keep it on the counter another month or two, enjoying its oddness, the conversation it makes with the onions and bananas, the jokes it would tell you if you’d only listen. Arrange a few on your kitchen table where they will lend the whole room a tangible rusticity, painted, as it will suddenly seem, like a Flemish still-life. Whatever their presence gives you, let it linger—untouched—until at least December.
In the meantime, there are plenty of squash that need eating. True autumnal squash, the pepos (Cucurbita pepo) have thinner skins and a disposition that fades into mediocrity by true-winter. Delicata, spaghetti, acorn, carnival, sweet dumpling—these small, easygoing squash are at their peak flavor and texture right now. Summer falling into autumn is a pepo relay: zucchini, crookneck, and pattipans (also C. pepo) pass the baton to their starchy siblings. I find it useful to think of pepo “winter” squash this way—sugary amplifications of their green summer sisters, rather than something altogether different.
And then there is the most famous pepo of all, the one that signifies, in the symbolic language of seasonal decorations and latté flavors, that fall is here. A walk through my neighborhood betrays their numbers: pumpkins (vegetable, paper, and plastic) guard doors, stoops, and windows; cheerfully declaring that this shortened sky, this ground painted in leaves, this cool sunlight is theirs. And we give it to them gladly—cut with spooky hieroglyphics, worn as costumes, baked into muffins and cheesecake and pie. Coincidentally, the time of year we most associate with pumpkins—October and November—neatly matches their prime-eating window. If it’s the right time to put a pumpkin on the porch, it’s the right time to eat a pepo.
But skip the baked jack-o-lantern this year. Bred for girth and thin, easy-carving walls, they make poor cooking pumpkins. ‘Sugar pie’ is the standard baking pumpkin at market—small and sweet as its name, sugar pie flesh has enough flavor and density for muffins or quickbreads. Serious pie bakers will want to snatch up a ‘winter luxury’ pumpkin. Renowned for their smooth, bright pulp and concentrated flavor, these medium-sized, dusty orange pumpkins are coated in a charming netted patina, making them as lovely to look at as they are to eat.
Of course, you can eat any squash you pick up at the market right away, but knowing when they will taste like the best version of themselves makes for better pies, sautés, soups, and roasts, and, if you’re exploring new varieties, better first impressions.
Never made a pumpkin pie from scratch? This excellent step-by-step guide from Seed Savers Exchange will get you off to a good start!