Sunday, February 7, 2010

Three Sisters

Ah, the winter squash! What a beautiful vegetable. Place a couple of colourful squashes in the middle of the dining table, and you've got a lovely centrepiece. They come in all sorts of shapes and colours, and each has a distinctive flavour.

Highly nutritious, the winter squash makes for wonderful winter fare: it gives respite from the endless contingent of winter root vegetables (lovely as they are themselves). Pleasantly sweet, winter squash vary in texture from crisp to creamy-smooth, with flavours ranging from nutty to buttery. Though some squash haters may pick up on the hints of family resemblance, the brightly coloured flesh of winter squash is a far cry from melons and cucumbers. If you are dealing with a die-hard melon-hater, stick to the more starchy squashes to quash their dislikes.

Butternut, buttercup and acorn (bb&a) are the more commonly available squashes with starchy inclinations. Spaghetti squash and pumpkin are somewhat watery (in fact, pumpkins are so full of moisture that they rarely keep past late November), and can remind some of their summer cousins. While spaghetti squash and pumpkins are most delightful when just barely cooked and still crisp (pumpkin pie notwithstanding!), their starchy counterparts are at the best when fully cooked to bring out their smoothness. Actually, bb&a puré down to such creaminess that they make a great low-fat, vegan soup: rich enough to satisfy everyone at a dinner party without leaving the vegan guest out.

Obviously, winter squash do not grow in winter, in some far away land with temperate climes . They grow all summer long, are picked and cured in the autumn, and keep for a really long time without too much effort -except for pumpkin. In fact, Canada is practically self-sufficient in winter squash production, with Ontario producing the largest amount, British Columbia a close second, and Quebec trailing far behind in third place. Despite the wet and cool summer of 2009, Canadian squashes are still available at the supermarket, and South American imports should not appear before May -but who eats stodgy winter squash in May anyway? Asparagus and peas in May!!!

In order to keep through the long winter months, winter squashes develop a very thick rind during the curing process. Which can make for quite a workout when you try to hack the thing into bits. Personally, I find it easiest to saw the squash in two with a serrated knife or to hack at it with a heavy cleaver (it gets a bit messy this way). I then scoop out the seeds, and pop that baby in the oven (cut-side down on a papered baking sheet, 375'F/ 190'C for 45 minutes). If you want chunks of squash for roasting, and need to peel them raw, you can partially bake the halves (±20 minutes) before peeling and chopping. I've heard that a couple of minutes in the microwave oven also works, but I don't have one, so I don't know how you would go about it this way. Acorn squash tends to be smaller than its cousins, and it has a relatively thin rind, making it an easier candidate for raw chopping. I usually roast acorn wedges with the skin on: the skin is thin enough to eat, but can be removed in the plate, and it's more colourful that way.


Native American Indian legends have it that Corn, Bean and Squash were three inseparable sisters. Raised together, these three crops thrive and flourish, providing us with sustenance throughout the harsh winter months. Followers of native gardening and sustainable landscaping often plant these food crops together to create low-impact vegetable plots: the corn stalks grow tall and straight, serving as polls for the climbing beans, whereas creeping squash shade roots and act as a living mulch. And the bean, being a legume, traps airborne nitrogen and makes it available to her two hungry sisters.

Three sisters so intertwined, it stands to reason that they should be eaten together. Funnily enough, of all the recipes for succotash that I found, only one contained all three sisters, the others consisted of corn and beans alone. Succotash is a stew-like casserole of corn and beans (and squash!) often served as a side dish. Very hearty and filling, it is traditionally made with dried corn and beans, but some recipes call for fresh summer corn. For convenience's sake, the following recipe uses frozen corn and dried beans, but you can also use canned.

I've never had authentic succotash, I've only ever read about it in recipe books, so I may completely off the mark with this soup. But it a hearty soup, full of contrasting flavours and textures. It's perfect for chilly winter days and snowy evenings. Add thick slices of bread and a hunk of cheese, and you've got a simple meal to warm you up.

The beans and the squash require some advance preparation, however, you can save some time by pre-cooking beans and squash on a slow day and keeping them in the freezer. Cooked and frozen squash are great to have, especially when you have sudden cravings for a pumpkin dessert: substitute baked squash for the pumpkin in your favourite recipe, and the results will be so much tastier than if you had used canned pumpkin.

Succotash Soup 
serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main


1 medium butternut or buttercup squash, or 2 large acorn squash
1 medium onion and/or 1 leek, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
5 leaves fresh sage or 1 tsp dried sage
about 1 pinch grated nutmeg, optional 
½cup dried beans, or 1 medium can of beans of your choice
1cup frozen corn, or the equivalent canned
salt and pepper
2 Tbs butter or vegetable oil


If you are using dried beans, soak them the day before you intend to make this soup. Throw out the soaking water (water your house plants with it!), cover with fresh water and bring up to the boil. Most dried beans will take 45 minutes to just over an hour to cook. Smaller beans tend to take the least time, and lentils need neither soaking nor a long cooking time.
When the beans are cooked -they should be soft enough to chew without crunch, but still hold their shape- leave to cool down in the cooking liquor. Drain before using.

While your beans are soaking, prepare the squash: cut in half, remove the seeds with a spoon, place on a papered (parchment or aluminum) baking sheet. Some cooks like to season the squash at this point, while this will definitely help flavour the final dish, I sometimes use extra baked squash in sweet recipes, so I prefer to leave them unseasoned. Bake in the oven at 375'F/190'C for about 45minutes. If you find squashes a tad too sweet for your liking, you can bake them a bit longer (15-30 minutes more at 350'F/180'C) until the flesh starts to caramelize. The colour will be darker, but the sugars will be toned down.

When the squash are cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh out with a spoon and save for later.

In your soup pot, melt the butter or heat oil. Add the chopped onion/leek, and let them sweat.

When the onions begin to turn translucent add the garlic, bay leaf, sage and nutmeg if using.
When the onions are fully cooked, add the cooked squash, stir about to mix.
Add just enough water or vegetable stock -if you have- to cover, and bring to the boil.
Leave to simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Remove from the heat, and purée until smooth. Add more water or stock if the soup is too thick, you can also use cream or milk, but the soup does not need it.
Season to taste.
Return to the stove, and bring back to the boil.

If you are using canned beans and corn, drain and rinse under the tap.

Add the corn and beans to the boiling squash, turn the heat down, and let simmer for 10 minutes. 
If you cooked your own beans, the cooking liquor can be used as a stock for the soup.

The soup is pretty enough on its own, but if you feel it needs a garnish, the sky's the limit: colourful sprouts add crunch and zing; chopped toasted almonds and fried sage leaves are traditionally paired with squash in Italy; and crumbled blue cheese or bacon makes this soup a meal.




If you tire of blended soup and would like more to chew on, this soup can be made in a more rustic fashion. It may actually take less time to make...

Chop the onion or leek into bite-sized pieces, and mince the garlic and fresh sage (if using). Do not pre-bake the squash: instead you will have to wrestle with it to cut big chunks. To peel, try using a vegetable peeler: not all peelers can handle squash rind, if yours is having a rough time, you will have to go at it with your chef's knife. Place the squash chunks on a flat surface and cut the peel away. Once peeled, each chunk should be chopped into slightly larger than bite-sized pieces -they will whittle away during the long cooking time. Throw in the pot with the onions, sauté until the onions are cooked, and the squash starts to change colour (its edges should look translucent). Add the soaked beans (not cooked!), cover with water and bring up to the boil. Leave to simmer for 45 minutes. Check the beans for doneness. Add frozen corn, and season. Simmer for ten minutes more. 

Bon app'!

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