Squash is a fickled fruit

The problem with squash is squunk. Not a word? I know. But there ought to be an unsavoury term for the off-taste of a winter squash. It curls the tongue and purses the lips. And it haunts the gardener who aims to make a pie out of fresh pumpkin or winter squash for the holidays.

Amy Goldman, a 56-year-old garden writer and chairwoman of the nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, describes unappetizing gourds as “spitters” and “projectile spitters” in her encyclopedic book, “The Compleat Squash.”

“Whatever that strong flavour is, I find it distasteful as well,” she said, speaking from her 1788 farmhouse in Rhinebeck, New York. “Imagine eating your way through hundreds of varieties, raw and cooked!”

If anyone could explain the science of squunk, Goldman said, it might be J. Brent Loy, a 69-year-old geneticist and plant breeder at the University of New Hampshire. In his 40-year career, Loy has created “hundreds and hundreds of hybrids,” he said, and released dozens of commercial cultivars.

Loy’s term of art? “I call it a squashy taste,” he said. But there’s “never been a profile of aromatic compounds in squash.”

He could probably unmask the rogue molecules with a big enough research grant and some fancy lab work, he said, “But I can tell you, as a breeder, we rely on our taste tests.” If a squash demonstrates “a consistently strong flavour, I just throw it out.”

Brilliant! Toss the bad seeds and keep the good ones to plant next year. That, I resolved, is what I would do after conducting a bake-off with seven different pumpkins and winter squash.

In September, I’d begun to methodically collect (read: obsessively hoard) pumpkins and winter squash from the farmers’ market in the church parking lot down the block. In bags and backpacks, I hauled them every Friday to my home in St. Paul: a Fairy squash, whose forest-green-and-tan striping looked like an academic scarf; a blue Hubbard, whose slouchy gray form recalled a snoozing Dumbo.

Then I discovered the Ambercup. Oh, Ambercup, I could write a sonnet about you! Your flame-orange skin like a fluttering maple leaf in autumn, your compact body like a roll of belly fat. OK, maybe no sonnet. But I could eat a roasted 1.8-kilogram Ambercup with a spoon, straight from the oven. Not just could – did.

I had a plan, now, for raising superior squash. Was it a good plan? No, in hindsight, it was not a good plan. But before I could grasp how to grow vines in the pumpkin patch, I needed to get a handle on squash taxonomy.

“The Compleat Squash” (Artisan, 2004) features glamour shots from four of the five domesticated species of Cucurbita, a genus that includes all zucchinis, squashes and pumpkins. Popular eating squashes like delicata and acorn come from the species C. pepo. So do field pumpkins, which are most suitable for carving into jack-o’-lanterns and feeding to donkeys. Buttercup and Hubbard squashes – arguably, the most delectable – are examples of C. maxima. Meanwhile, C. moschata gives us the old, familiar butternut, the barbell-shaped squash that so often tastes of – well, how about squunkitude?

None of this information helped answer what everyone wants to know: what’s the difference between a pumpkin and a winter squash?

Short answer: there is no difference. With pumpkins, said Judith Sumner, 59, of Worcester, Massachusetts, you have a “radially symmetrical fruit.” Sumner’s book “American Household Botany” (Timber Press, 2004), includes a colorful history of Cucurbita among the colonists. Otherwise, she said, “the plants themselves are virtually identical. The flowers are indistinguishable.”

Those flowers don’t trick gardeners only. According to Sumner, bees can’t tell the difference, either. This helps explain why pumpkins and winter squash are promiscuous crossbreeders. Pepos, as both fruit are called, are monoecious: they have “separate male and female flowers on one vine,” she said. Within a broad squash species, “the female flower will accept any incoming male pollen grain” from as far as a bee can roam.

Having raised more than 300 pepos for “The Compleat Squash,” Goldman has a work-around for the hybridization problem. If you want to grow the same cultivar from one year to the next, she said, “you’re going to have to take matters into your own hands.”

In other words: become the bee.

The process may be a little involved, Goldman said. But it’s not like breeding racehorses. Start with a closed female blossom: that would be the one with an ovary bump between the stem and the petals. The night before it seems likely to open, tape it shut. In the morning, she said, remove the chastity belt – I mean, the masking tape – and brush the exposed stigma with the anther of a newly exposed male flower. Finally, tape up the female blossom again to bar any stray pollen on the make.

For the first year, however, the kitchen gardener will need to buy seeds. In the meantime, it’s not too late to find uncommon winter squash at the store.

The best squash, ultimately, may be the kind that the gardener harvests at the right time. Cucurbita “will look ripe as soon as 15 days after its fruit sets,” according to Loy, the plant breeder. But maturity – that is, a full complement of starches and sugars – takes at least 40 or 50 days to develop. Letting the fruit sit for a few weeks after harvest can be a good strategy.

And so we come to the pie. Commandeering the crust-making on a recent Monday morning was my friend Tricia Cornell, 36, an industrious home cook and a staff writer for the Twin Cities food site The Heavy Table (heavytable.com).

Hot from the oven, the Ambercup and turban squash had the deepest color and richest flavor. But though these squash were compelling on their own, their performance in a modest pie was less convincing – like Javier Bardem guest starring in “Two and a Half Men.” Once we had run the pulp through a food processor and dolled it up with heavy cream, sugar and spice, both squash baked up a little gooey.

Hoisting a slice of Ambercup at the judging table that evening, my friend Euan Kerr, 50, announced: “This is what we call a fighting pie – it’s heavy. If there is a family argument, you can defend yourself with it.”

The delicata and the sugar pie pumpkin, though hardly frothy, could pass as cruiserweights. This pair seemed like a closer cousin to the orange stuff that comes from a can, whatever it may be.

Ultimately, my six-person tasting panel concluded, any of these squash – even the seemingly squunky ones – could be sneaked past a squeamish niece at the holiday table. But a pumpkin pie remains a weird comfort food, “more American than apple pie,” as Amy Goldman likes to say.

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