January is an odd month. Although it is still the dead of winter, the months of indulging in butter-basted everything have finally caught up with us and it seems like the fresh fare of spring can’t come quick enough. However, it’ll still be a little while ‘til the strawberries and asparagus show up (locally grown that is) so one must make do with the knobbly root vegetables and hardier squashes that are currently available. My new favorite: kabocha squash.
It’s pronounced kuh-bo-cha and can be found in most Asian grocery stores year-round, but is best in the fall and winter. Kabochas look like squat pumpkins with dark green skin and can range in size from two to eight pounds (I usually find the medium sized ones to have the best texture). The flesh is deep orange thanks to the plentiful beta-carotene, and has a mild, creamy flavor similar to pumpkin. For those that don’t like the sometimes syrupy quality that sweet potatoes can have, kabocha’s sweetness is more subtle and harmonizes well with both savory and sweet flavor profiles. Another bonus: the skin is edible! It softens enough during cooking to be palatable, so you don’t need to worry about peeling it (If I seem excited, it’s because I am; peeling hard squashes is so tedious). Also worth noting, this winter squash is rich in complex carbohydrates, vitamin C, and potassium and very low in fat.
To exemplify the versatility of the kabocha squash I’ve given you two recipes: Kabocha Chips and Kabocha Soup with Coconut. Both are light, yet flavorful and satisfying enough for a dreary January day whether you’ve given up your diet resolutions or not.
For those of you who like to nibble on a little something crunchy without worrying about those evil trans fats, excess sodium and scary mystery ingredients, these are the snack for you! Although very simple to make, they are a bit more labor-intensive than opening a bag, but are so worth the effort. They will disappear in no time-I promise!
Preheat the oven to 275°.Slice the squash as thinly as possible with a knife, or preferably, a mandoline. The thinner the slices are, the crisper they will be in the end. Put the squash slices in a bowl and toss with the oil and salt to coat.
Spread out the slices on a cookie sheet (or two) in a single layer (it is best to lay them down one by one). They slices can be quite close to one another, as they will shrink during cooking but can’t be overlapping.
Bake the squash slices for 30-45 minutes checking them often and turning them after 20 minutes. They should be dark brown, but not black. The darker they are, the crisper they will be when they cool. Remove the chips from the cookie sheet and spread out on a paper towel to cool. At this point, you may season with additional salt or spices if desired (I would recommend either the sweet or savory spice mixes included in the Crispy Roast Sweet Potato recipe). The chips can be stored for up to two days in an airtight container.
Kabocha Soup with Coconut
This exotic, Thai-style soup takes almost no time at all to prepare. Some of the ingredients may be hard to find at a regular grocery store, but I urge you to make a trek to your nearest Asian grocer, where they will undoubtedly carry all of the ingredients needed (and many more bizarre foodstuffs).
Here in Seattle, I suggest: HT Oaktree Market (10008 Aurora Ave N), Uwajimaya (600 5th Ave S), Viet Wah Supermarket (1032 S Jackson St.), and 99 Ranch Market in Edmonds (22511 Highway 99).
Cut the squash halve into quarters, and then into thin slices. Put the squash in a pot with the water and salt, and bring to a low simmer. Cook the squash for 10 minutes, until just tender.
Slice the galangal or ginger into ¼ inch slices and add it to the squash, along with the coconut milk, lime leaves, lemongrass, mushrooms, and bell pepper. Simmer the soup for two minutes, then add the lime juice or vinegar, chili paste, and fish sauce. Taste the broth and adjust the seasonings if necessary.
Serve immediately, topped with the cilantro and torn basil leaves.