Monday, February 4, 2013

Choose the Kabocha

Hard as it is to believe this sometimes - it's 19 degrees outside as I write this - cooler weather does offer some produce delights.  

May I present Exhibit A: Winter squash, the kind of squash that, unlike zucchini and other summer squash, has a hard rind and seeds with hard shells. It can also have a luscious flavor. Winter is a little bit of a misnomer, since winter squash is typically harvested in the fall, but - thanks to the hard protective rind - it is stored and sold in wintertime. 

A winter (squash) wonderrland

Over the years I've eaten my way through a wide range of winter squashes. (Now, there's an image...) I started with butternut, perhaps the most popular of winter squashes, and acorn, and then tried the varieties I found at the farmers' markets: delicata, sweet dumpling (great branding! - who would not love a sweet dumpling?), hubbard, etc. I even tried spaghetti squash, whose pulp breaks down into individual strands when cooked. (Supposedly, with sufficient amounts of sauce, the shredded squash pulp becomes a convincing substitute for spaghetti. I was not convinced. I must not have added enough sauce.) 

I came to this conclusion: choose the kabocha.

Ignore those butternuts on the left!

Many restaurants jazz up their winter squash so much that the individual type's qualities don't matter that much. 

Think of the typical ways in which acorn squash is served: The top cut off, perhaps re-positioned at a jaunty angle, seeds removed and the seed cavity filled with syrup and maybe some dried fruit. Or as an alternative, cut into rings and dusted with cinnamon and sweeteners. Any diner torn between vegetable and dessert would not need to choose - these dishes are both!

Butternut are often presented in a more sophisticated way: ravioli, stews, soups, etc. When I decided to cook them myself, I understood why most gourmet stores with a frozen foods department sell frozen peeled, diced butternut. Everyone, even peel lovers like me, agrees that butternuts must be peeled.  If you're using fresh squash, this task is annoying. The hassle would be justified if the payoff of using fresh butternut were great, but it isn't. Butternuts can be watery and kind of insipid compared to other winter squash, and if you're going to puree or saute the squash, and then add a lot of seasonings, why not just use the frozen cubes? The loss of flavor or texture isn't going to be that significant. And if flavor is indeed essential, I would suggest choosing another variety of squash.

I liked the delicata and sweet dumpling, which had edible skins and seeds that were tasty when roasted. But about half the time I drew duds, watery squash with little taste.

Finally I did what I should have done at the start of my journey: I asked a farmer, What's your best tasting squash?

You can guess the answer: the kabocha. 

The winner!

Actually the answer was a little more complicated. It was, "Well, you might not like the answer if you've been getting the delicata. It's the kabocha. They're by far the best tasting and you don't need to peel them, but buying one is kind of commitment, kind of like buying a whole watermelon. Some people complain about how hard they are to open. Their seeds aren't as good as some other squash seeds if you're buying the squash as kind of a two-fer with the seeds. You have to know how to pick them, so if you don't you might get one you don't like. Other than that, yes, they are the best."

He was one of those laconic farmers.

He was convincing, though, so I bought one. And after that, another. The flesh was dense and sweet and flavorful. Like sweet potatoes, only better. Maybe with a hint of chestnuts.

And that was that for the other kinds of winter squash.

Of course, as anyone who is seeking out a food with a somewhat mysterious name knows, it is important to find out if the food is known by any other name. (A friend visiting in London, seeking to avoid raisins in her bread, was assured that there were no raisins, not even dried sultanas, but got a hit "dried blackcurrants." What's in a name?) 

The name "kabocha" is synonymous with Japanese pumpkin and indeed kabocha loom large in Asian cooking, especially tempura and curries. In the US, kabocha are often labeled buttercups, and buttercup squash are often labeled kabocha. 

Of course you're confused
Buying a buttercup isn't the end of the world - they are tasty too, but a little wetter and less dense than kabocha. The two varieties look a lot alike, with the same colors and stripe pattern. Often the buttercup are more rectangular, but I haven't found that to be true 100% of the time. The main difference in appearance is in their bottoms. Buttercup have the "buttercup" button at the blossom end, and kabocha are flat. 

Buttercup bottom

Kabocha bottom

I have to admit I took the farmer's concerns to heart. Buying a whole anything big makes me a little nervous. Last summer I bought some whole watermelons at the farmers market, and some of them would not have merited a second glance had they been cut open. The flesh was mealy and pale, but the watermelon looked great from the outside.

I tried to crack the code of choosing a good kabocha. One market vendor had me thumping kabocha like a shaman so I could hear the special thud that a perfectly ripe kabocha would make. I became a little skeptical of the Kabocha Whisperer, however, when two squash that he pronounced "perfect" were waterlogged and almost inedible. I devised my own, simpler system.

First, I look for a kabocha that looks ripe. An orange blush is appealing.

A winsome blush

I also look for a kabocha that is heavy for its size and has a thick, tough rind. A rind that feels too thin or soft suggests that the kabocha was cut from the vine prematurely.

That pretty much covers the woe of immaturity. On the other end of the spectrum lurks the specter of over-ripeness or even rot. If you see kabocha like the ones below, do not buy them! I took this photo at the stand of one of my favorite vendors at the Union Square Farmers' Market. Yuck! Don't rely upon reputation alone. 

Just about ready for the compost heap, but instead being sold (presumably) with pride

A much better bet

Two weeks ago a friend just asked me for tips in buying kabocha, and I said, "I hate to say this, but I've had better luck with the kabocha imported from Mexico than I have had with the ones from the farmers' market." This view was confirmed by a Union Square Market farmer, who responded to my question about avoiding oozy, waterlogged kabocha, "This time of year I probably couldn't find you a 'dry' kabocha. They've been in storage and they're attracting moisture from the air."

I haven't been able to confirm this assessment is accurate, but it's a good enough tip to drive me to the trucked-in kabocha.

Next problem: kabocha are hard to open. Solution: some upper body strength + a decent chef's knife or cleaver. Find a point, make an initial cut, and slide the knife in. Rocking the squash gently to expand the slice might be helpful. If necessary, trace the point on the other side and finish the slice on that side too. It might be easier to turn the kabocha upside down to make that initial slice. Ask for help from a strong, kind friend if you need it. As a last resort, you could bake the kabocha whole to soften it, let it cool, and then cut it up.

Part of the solution

Kabocha occasionally have yicchy growths on them. If the lichen-looking patch is small and isolated, it should not prevent you from buying the kabocha. Now is a good time to use your sharp knife to cut it off.

Hey hey, ho ho, this yicchy patch has got to go

The cut kabocha looks like this:

Cut kabocha

Use a spoon or your fingers to remove the seeds. 

Where are my offspring?

There are many ways to prepare kabocha. I usually go the simplest route. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spray a cookie sheet lined with foil with olive oil spray and then spray the kabocha inside and out with the olive oil. Place the kabocha cut side down on the cookie sheet and roast for at least 20 minutes. I've written elsewhere about my iffy oven, so I'll give loose roasting times. After 20 minutes take a peek and test for tenderness. I like a bit of char on the kabocha, but that's a matter of taste.

Getting ready to roast

I don't add anything in the way of seasoning, not even salt, but again this is a matter of taste. Sometimes I roast the seeds. Since the seeds are just a pleasant extra, not a deal-maker, I make no particular effort to scrub or season them. I add them to the tray, pulpy strings and all. The pulp burns off during the roasting process. Spread them out (better than I have below). I recommend checking in on the seeds after 10 or so minutes - they will certainly burn before the kabocha is fully cooked.

Not much effort here

You could also cut the kabocha halves into quarters, 1-inch slices or even cubes before roasting; if you do, expect the cooking time to be shorter. You can also cut the kabocha into slices or cubes after cooking, as I have done here.


I haven't gone back. Will you?


  1. A tip to cut Kabocha -- wrap washed whole Kabocha with plastic wrap, zap it in a microwave for a few minutes -- and voila! Much easier to cut.
    As its skin holds up heat quite well, you can make "Stuffed Kabocha". Microwave Kabocha a bit, cut the top, scoop up seeds, stuff it with whatever you want and bake in the oven. It can be a centerpiece for the dinner!

  2. This is a great idea. Some family members also suggested microwaving the kabocha to make cutting easier. Much, much better than the cleaver + mallet ideas I've seen over the years. I know some folks have described themselves as intimidated by the kabocha, so anything that makes this wonderful squash more accessible is a good thing. Hiroko, any special tips for stuffing?

  3. I boil the squash in whole to preserve its original flavor and most importantly to avoid having to cut it when it's too firm. I add a little salt to the water like boiling pastas. Sometimes It can be a little messy when the squash is little overcooked and too soft. But the flavor is wonderful. I find if I pick the squash that look fresh: glossy green color, they turn out better. The dull colors ones are off the field for too long.

    1. Thanks for these comments. I tend to prefer roasting over boiling (for nearly everything) - gotta have that caramelization! But your idea sounds very convenient as well.
      Regarding the dull color, I have not noticed a different in taste nor texture based upon glossiness, but I will now be on the lookout. Sometimes the glossy ones are darker green, which I associate with relative unripeness.

    2. That is true. A good and ripe squash SHOULD have a dull skin, as well as that nice orange patch on one spot. I have to remind myself to remain calm when people interchange the name of kabocha and buttercup - it just doesn't do either squash justice. I am definitely the kabocha fan, but hey, everybody likes something different, and I assume there are plenty of folks who prefer the buttercup, and that is all well and good too. It's kind of like when people call sweet potatoes yams just because they are orange.... I won't even start. I was given a bunch of the buttercups for free, so I am roasting one now, hoping it will be alright.... I may just use them for pureeing instead of my treasured dry-roasted till they are super dry and and almost leathery around the edges chunks. Luckily Kabocha are available year round here. I also find that the longer they have been stored, the better they taste. I find they actually LOSE moisture, making them pleasingly dryer.

  4. I love kabocha; have eaten them for years. I cut them in half with a heavy Chinese cleaver (cheap in Chinatown). Just aim carefully and lean down hard.

  5. I have a hack saw that is kept in the kitchen and used just for the squash. It works great!

  6. My favorite and super easy way to enjoy a kabocha:
    -In the morning, put the whole kabocha into the microwave, and cook on high for 10-20min depending on size
    -Leave it on counter to cool in its protective shell for however many hours (or refrigerate it to use next day)
    -In the evening, when I'm ready to eat it, I slice it in half (almost like cutting through room temp butter),
    -Scoop out and toss the seeds (seeds don't have much flavor),
    -Then scoop the flesh into a big bowl. I might get 2-3 cups of the squash
    -Then add about half cup whole milk
    -Puree with immersion blender in bowl to get a thick soup (though mashing it with a fork works almost as well)
    -Add salt and fresh cracked black pepper
    -Reheat in microwave to get it up to temperature

    I've tried it roasted in the oven, but I gotta say the soup tastes much better to me (and not using the oven in the hot summer time is nice). Something about the combination of milk, salt, and black pepper goes really well with sweet squashes. Just don't overdue the milk. You don't want the soup to taste milky.

  7. I am a winter squash lover who's lucky enough to have a farmer in the family who grows and shares his crop with me each year. He is the one who initially introduced me to Buttercup squash, and I have never gone back. Now I know this is a post about kabocha, but honestly, I have never had a tastier, sweeter or more flavorful squash than Buttercup. I will certainly try a Kabocha based on your recommendation, as I do notice that buttercup flesh is very soft, but I always wonder why Buttercup is not flying of the shelves at every grocery store or farmers market.

  8. The rind on these is edible as well? Ok, technically all the rinds are edible, however some are pretty awful to eat. *grin* I assume the rind of the Kabocha is fine?

    1. This is super late, but yeah. I boil my kabocha in a Japanese broth for maybe 8 mins, and can't when really detect when the rind begins and ends. The rind is kept on when frying it in tempura too.

    2. I should clarify that i cut it into bite sized chunks, then boil in soup. I haven't tried boiling one whole yet.

  9. You can cook whole kabochas in a pressure cooker, too. I've never had one explode, btw! About 10 minutes in an electric pressure cooker will do the trick.

  10. In the defense of the picture with the almost gone squash, even if no one buys them...they do still have to TRY and sell them before they get tossed into the compost if they're not gone yet. If it can still be eaten that day, they still try and sell. Same thing for crops that didn't turn out perfect. It's also possible (like many farms do around here) the person selling had no idea what they were supposed to look like, it's not uncommon for farms to hire "market people", employees that only do farmers markets sales for the farm. May not know about every item their selling but they are probably more approchable and better at getting you to buy then people that actually work on the farm. It's a little weird but at the end of the day it's all perishable and quite a few people worked too hard for that squash to just get thrown out because it didn't turn out perfect. It's tuff being a small farm compared to industrial, there's a lot more to lose. Always something to keep in mind

  11. Thanks for your comment. The kabocha in the do-not-buy! photo had quite a bit of mold and was being sold at full price. I could see buying it at heavy discount to account for the work and waste associated with cutting out the bad bits, but that wasn't what was offered.

  12. I usually halve them with my butcher saw.

    1. I cannot figure out why anyone would take the risk of cutting a hard rind squash with a saw or a butcher knife. It boggles the mind. Just toss the thing in the oven for about 5-8 minutes, take it out and let it cool, and the rind will be soft enough to cut with a knife (i always use a kitchen cleaver for everything whether it's hard or soft because that is my go-to kitchen utensil) and if the rind isn't soft enough yet, put it back in the oven until it is. Usually the inside isn't warm yet, just the rind. This is the way I've been doing it since my grandmother taught me this back in the 1950's when I was first starting to learn to cook as a young girl. She also taught me not to season it until after it's done cooking and ready to eat. Another tip she gave me was to start the roasting process with the flesh side down, and about halfway through the cooking, to turn it right side up and fill the "bowl" part with a bit of real butter after poking a few holes in it with a fork so the butter will soak in.

      She used lard on the pan while roasting hers, of course, because there were no fancy oils and stuff back then. I usually use natural parchment paper on the pan, or I use a graniteware roaster with just a bit of water in the bottom. It's ok if some of the butter ooozes out and gets mixed with the water, too.

      Hope that is helpful to someone, as I know I'm quite late to the game here. ;-)

  13. I flat out microwave mine. Due to a broken shoulder a few years ago and rotator cuff injuries to boot, I do not have the strength to cut it raw. And pulling out the seeds raw is a major pain. I just wash it, put gashes with a butcher knife, cover it with a microwave cover and cook it on high for 6 min. Turn it over and cook it on high another 6. Then whatever you need if it is not soft enough. If I have more time, I microwave it half way, cut it, deseed, and roast. But truly this squash is so phenomenal , it is just really good just microwaved. And FAST!

  14. Ripe Kabocha is definitely grey-green with orange/yellow patches. Don't be fooled by the bright green stuff - definitely immature. If you go for the immature, expect a much flatter flavor and somewhat rubbery texture. Unfortunately, that seems to be what's flooding the market now.