Squash Blossoms

Originally published August 17, 2011.

A squash blossom, still on the plantIf any food can be described as ephemeral, it’s squash blossoms. They’re only around for a short while, and once picked they deteriorate rapidly, which is why you usually can’t get them at grocery stores, only farmers’ markets and neighbourhood gardens.

Squash plants actually produce two different types of flowers: male and female.  The male flowers grow on the end of long, slender stems.  The female flowers grow on thicker stems that buldge where they meet the flower.  This bulge is what will eventually become a squash.

Generally there are more male flowers than female.  The male flowers can be picked without affecting the production of fruit, so long as a few are left behind to pollinate the females.  Some sources say to remove the stamens from the interior of the male flowers before eating.  I don’t.  I hope it’s not a safety thing.  Picking the female flowers will prevent fruit from developing on that stem.  Even so, it’s worth picking a few females, especially once the buldge on the stem has grown into a tiny, malformed squash.

The flowers of both summer and winter squash are edible.  (Summer squash are varieties that are picked young, and therefore have tender, edible seeds and skin, like zucchinis and pattypans.  Winter squash are varieties that are mature when picked, and therefore have tough, inedible seeds and skin, like butternut squash and pumpkins.)

While they can be eaten raw, squash blossoms are usually lightly battered and fried.  They can also be stuffed.

Below are some blossoms from a zucchini plant.  The female flowers are distinguished by the tiny zucchinis attached to their bases.  The male flowers have their characteristic long, slender stem in tact.

In the final picture below the blossoms are filled with a homemade cottage cheese (something my ancestors would have called “clabbered milk”) mixed with green onions and a bit of lemon juice.  I used a piping bag to stuff the flowers.

The batter is just skim milk with flour and salt.  The flowers are lightly coated with the batter, then fried in canola oil at 350°F.  You can shallow fry in a straight-sided pan (just add enough oil to come about half way up the side of the flowers) or deep fry in a pot.  Once the batter is crisp and the interior hot, maybe one minute, remove the flowers to a bowl lined with paper towel.  Season and consume immediately.

August on a plate:

Male blossoms, and some female blossoms with the nascent sqash

Squash blossoms, filled with cottage cheese and onions, battered and fried

Introduction to Soup

Split-pea soup with ham hock and crème fraîcheThere is something medieval about soup.  It is often made from bones.  It takes time to prepare, and to eat.  Soup is slow and simple and primordial and the opposite of modern.

I consider the promulgation of soup a personal mission.  Most of the formal meals that I prepare for friends or at work include a soup course.  Burns supper, for instance, begins with Scotch broth, Thanksgiving with squash soup, Viennese dinners with pancake soup.

Types of Soup

This is the kind of rant I usually relegate to the footnotes of a post, but I want to talk about soup classification.  In culinary school our standard text was called Professional Cooking for Canadian Chefs (PCCC).  I learned a lot from this book, but some parts of it are seriously whack.  One of the most annoying things in PCCC is its classification of soups. There are, it says, four types of soup: clear, thick, international, and specialty.  Isn’t that ridiculous? Gumbo (a thick soup) was classified as an “international” soup, because it had a specific regional origin (Louisiana).  Gazpacho (a thick soup with a specific regional origin) was classified as a specialty soup, because it is served cold.  Ridiculous.  It’s like saying there are four types of cars: red, blue, fast, and Italian.

So, let me correct the matter and say that there are two types of soup: clear and thick.  Many of those soups have specific regional origins.  A few of them are served cold.  But they are all either clear or thick.

 

Clear Soups

Chicken noodle soup!Clear soups are made with transparent stock or broth, through which is distributed various garnishes such as vegetables, meat, and starches.  Chicken noodle soup is a clear soup.

The principle aesthetic consideration when preparing clear soups is the colour and clarity of the stock.  Adherence to these basic stock-making principles will result in a clear, flavourful stock with an appetizing colour.

Converting good stock into a soup can be as simple as adding some chopped vegetables and leftover meat.  I typically lightly sauté my vegetables in butter before adding the stock.  This is strictly for flavour.  Be sure to use a scant amount of fat to sauté your vegetables.  It’s nice to have a few spots of fat floating on top of a clear soup (the French call these spots “eyes”), but you don’t want so much that it forms a mat of grease.

If the clear soup will contain a starch such as pasta or rice, cook the starch in a separate pot of water.  These garnishes leach starch into the liquid as they cook, so they would cloud your soup.  Think about what water looks like after you’ve boiled pasta in it.

 

Thick Soups

When the liquid body of the soup is opaque and viscous enough to coat the diner’s spoon we describe the soup as thick.  Thick soups can get their viscosity in a number of ways.

Purée Soups.  Purée soups experienced a minor renaissance about ten years ago when a marketing genius started selling ready-made butternut squash soup.  Before that, most people in our part of the world only knew of stodgy “cream soups” like cream of mushroom and cream of potato.  I know that’s a pretty sweeping generalization, but this is a blog not an encyclopedia and I get to write things like that.

The most important thing to know about purée soups is that they must contain some sort of starch.  Broccoli, for instance, contains little starch, and will not make a cohesive, voluptuous purée without the help of a starchy companion like potato.

I would like to discourage three common practices when it comes to purée soups.

The first is the idea that you need stock to make soup.  This is a lie invented by classical French cuisine.  Stock is helpful (but not essential) in clear soups, but more or less useless for purée soups.  For starters, the full body of a rich stock is completely lost in the starchy mass of the purée.  Also I think the goal of a purée soup should be to taste perfectly like the ingredient it is made from.  If I make a potato soup, I don’t really want it to taste like chicken and mirepoix.  You can make very, very flavourful purée soups using only water.

The second is born from the idea that a soup or sauce has to simmer for several hours to develop flavour.  This isn’t true.  In fact, vegetables have the most flavour when they are just, just cooked.  After this the flavour wanes.  Vegetables should only be cooked to the point of complete tenderness before being puréed.

Finally is the idea that you must finish a purée soup with cream.  There is a time and a place for cream in soups, but it has a tendency to mute other flavours.  In some cases it also kills the colour.  I like to use cream with potato soups and mushroom soups.  I would never add cream to a squash soup, as it would turn the vibrant orange to a muted yellow, and muddle the natural, sweet flavour of the vegetable.

The way to really distinguish a purée soup is to make it as smooth and velvety as possible.  Nothing will get vegetable mash as smooth as an upright blender like a Vitamix.  Food processors, even powerful commercial varieties like the Robot Coup, and immersion blenders just don’t circulate like an upright blender.  Start blending the soup and forget about it for maybe five minutes, then run the soup through a chinois.

Purée soups should not be stodgy; a spoon dragged along the surface shouldn’t leave a trace.

 

Purée Soup Case Study: Squash and Apple Soup

Pumpkin soup with cream and Styrian pumpkinseed oil

This is a magic soup of subtle architecture that perfectly bridges savoury, sweet, and tart.

Sautée sliced onions and garlic in butter until the onions are becoming translucent.  Add cubed squash and apple and sauté briefly.  Cover with cold water.  Bring to a simmer.  As soon as the squash is tender, transfer the soup to a blender.

Season.  Don’t feel shy about adding a bit of sugar to reinforce the natural sweetness of the squash.

Finish with pumpkinseed oil.  Not to knock North American producers, but nothing compares to the Styrian variety.  I’ve written about it before, but it has a deep forest green colour and a knockout aroma of roasted nuts.  The best that I have had in North America was imported by a company from Montreal called Green Gold.  Not sure if it will be available in stores in Edmonton.

Other appropriate garnishes: heavy cream, roasted pumpkin seeds.

Roux-Thickened Soups.  Roux is the traditional way to thicken several classic soups, including chowder and gumbo, but it has fallen from favour in recent decades.  In fact, some of the chefs I have worked for have explicitly banned roux from their kitchens.  There are a few reasons for this.  First is the ever increasing phenomenon of gluten sensitivity.  More generally, roux is seen as stodgy.

I love roux.  I always have butter and flour in my kitchen.  It tastes good.  I use it in mac and cheese and corn chowder and even tourtière.

If for some reason you can’t use a roux in a chowder, you can make the soup as if it were a clear soup, then separate a portion, puré it, and mix it back with the rest of the soup.

A Quick Note on Cold Soups before we go

I think the two most common cold soups are tomato (“gazpacho”) and cucumber.  Many have tried these and decided they’re gross and then sworn off cold soup for the rest of their lives.  A better gateway into cold soups is the starchy varieties like potato and leek (“Vichysoisse”) and those containing fruit (the squash and apple soup described above).

My favourite cold soup is parsnip and pear:Bowl of parsnip and pear soup, garnished with toasted hazelnuts and chervil

 

In conclusion, I’ll reiterate that soup is the very essence of frugality and comfort.  Let it be a part of your life.

Roast Pumpkin Seeds

A lil' bowl of roasted pumpkin seedsRoast pumpkinseeds are a very rustic North American snack.  While pumpkin seeds are relished in several far flung parts of the world, including central America (pepitas) and Austria (kurbiskern), I think ours is the only civilization that eats pumpkinseeds in their shell.  Pumpkinseed shells are woody.  Frankly they are just barely edible, and certainly not digestible.

But I do like them.  Lengthy chewing promotes contemplation.  Rumination, even.

And though you can eat pumpkins throughout the fall and winter and into early spring, growing up I only ever ate roast pumpkin seeds at Hallowe’en.

A nifty trick for separating the seeds from the stringy pumpkin guts: throw the whole mess in a large pot of water.  If you rub the mass between your hands, you loose the pumpkin flesh from the seeds, which float to the top and can be easily skimmed off.  Dry them on a bake sheet lined with paper towel overnight.

Toss with oil.  Over the years I’ve flipped and flopped between oven-baking and pan-frying.  Certainly the oven is more gentle: it takes longer, but browns the seeds more evenly.  Pan-frying is more aggressive, and quick.  Right now I’m leaning towards pan-frying.

Traditionally salt and sugar and nothing else.  Paprika might be good, too.

Happy Hallowe’en.

Rethinking Pumpkin Pie

A hubbard squash from Tipi CreekI love pumpkin pie, but there are a few things about the classic preparation that I don’t understand.  First and foremost, why we use canned mix when there’s a stack of fresh pumpkins at every grocery store this time of year.

Lisa and I get loads of squash from Tipi Creek every fall, so often we make “squash pie” instead of “pumpkin pie.”  Obviously they’re very similar.  Hubbard squash, pictured at left, makes fantastic pie, as do butternut, buttercup, and acorn squash.

Using fresh squash allows you to adjust the flavour and colour of the custard.  Canned pumpkin is dark like caramel, I assume from a lengthy cook that reduces and browns the flesh (though that’s just a guess… maybe there’s caramel or molasses added?)  If you seed, skin, and cut up a squash, put it in a covered casserole and roast it quickly, you can get a purée that is bright orange, almost like the skin of the original vegetable.

My next question is why most recipes call for evaporated milk when we live in a world that has cream.

And finally, though I like the classic “pumpkin pie spice” (cinnamon, allspice, clove, nutmeg…), lately I’ve been trying some new flavours.  Like a good wallop of ginger.  I bet fenugreek would be good.  Actually you could take it in a million different directions, depending how far you’re willing to stray from people’s expectations.  What about orange zest and a bit of orange liqueur?  Or garam masala flavours like coriander and cumin?  Anyways.  I like a good hit of ginger.

Following is a good recipe for squash pie.  The custard is very sweet, but tastes fresh because of the quick cooking of the squash.  One issue that I haven’t resolved is that the custard always, always cracks as it cools.  (Baked to aggressively?  Too many eggs?  I’m working on it…)

 

Hubbard Squash Pie

Ingredients

  • 500 g roasted Hubbard squash (see above)
  • 250 g heavy cream
  • 150 g granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 300 g of your favourite, flaky pie dough

Procedure

  1. Combine all ingredients (except pie dough…) in a blender.  Process until very smooth.  The liquid will be viscous but easily pourable.
  2. Roll the pie dough to 1/8″ and line the pie pan.
  3. Pour the custard into the pie.  The custard will puff during baking, so leave some room for expansion.
  4. Bake the pie on a low oven rack at 425°F for fifteen minutes.  Move to upper rack and continue baking at 325°F until custard is set, maybe forty minutes.
  5. Serve with maple syrup and whipped cream.

A slice of pumpkin pie with maple syrup and whipped cream

 

Leftover Custard Mix

If the recipe above makes more custard than you can fit in your pie, you can bake it in ramekins as you would crème brûlée.  Here is a shadowy photo to prove it:

Pumpkin custard, baked into a ramekin, served with whipped cream, maple syrup, and pumpkin seeds

 

Eating a Jack-o-Lantern

Jack-o-LanternsThis is weird, I know, but most years, on All Saints Day, I eat my jack-o-lantern.  I usually carve the night before Halloween, then keep the pumpkin in the fridge overnight.  In Edmonton, Halloween is typically a chilly evening – sometimes there’s even snow – so setting the pumpkin outside for a few hours, I still feel perfectly comfortable eating it.

I should mention that the pumpkins we carve are from Tipi Creek CSA, so they taste fantastic.  Sometimes I carve other types of squash.  At left is a butternut squash jack-o-lantern.  I can’t attest to the eating-quality of the massive carving pumpkins sold at supermarkets.

So, after the trick-or-treaters have stopped calling, I take my jack-o-lantern off the step, cut it in half, and roast it in the oven.  It is then puréed and converted to pumpkin soup or pumpkin pie.

If the idea of roasting your carved pumpkin grosses you out, there are other ways to consume your jack-o-lantern.  When hollowing out any manner of squash, you should save the seeds and roast them.