Summer Cucurbit Winter Cucurbit
It is this time of year that we finally become a pickle shop. Without fail, folks will wander into The Shop from January through June, stare blankly at the retail cooler for several minutes, then look up at us and ask, “Do you have any pickles?” For the first few years, it was all we could do to keep from bursting out laughing. They were, of course, looking at a cooler full of pickles. But we know, as you surely know, that they are looking for cucumbers. Cucumis sativus or perhaps Cucumis anguria. From the family Cucurbitaceae. Squash, melons, and gourds.
By far the most fermented cucurbit in the United States is the cucumber. Fermented in a salt water brine, usually with dill and garlic and a variety of spices, it’s ubiquitous. The pickled cucumber came to this country with immigrants hailing from Northern Europe through its far Eastern reaches. They are known as Pickles. They are Pickles.
Besides cucumbers, we see a variety of melons and gourds fermented throughout Asia. What we don’t tend to see is Winter Squash. Cucurbita Maxima (think buttercups, kabochas, hubbards) and Curcurbita Moschata (think butternuts, and peachy skinned pumpkins). They challenge one of The Shop’s basic rules of thumb: is this vegetable pleasant to eat raw? Winter squashes challenge this rule with total grace. They are by their very nature storage vegetables. Crazy hard shell. Dense flesh. Winter sustenance. So why bother? In our mind’s eye when we think of these sugar powerhouses it is of familiar comfort foods—pumpkin pie, butternut squash soup, a kabocha puree. They can be some pretty serious, stick to your ribs, sweet mush. We say that with complete respect, this sweet mush is amazing, and along with scarves and the sound of rain on skylights, it might be our favorite winter reality. And maybe because they are some of our favorite foods, we are drawn to explore them deeper. Often people think that Winter Squash tastes like pumpkin pie mix. What if we take away the cinnamon and the caramelized creaminess and tried to approach them from a different angle? With texture. Cooked, but not. Crunch without the back of your throat starchiness. A whole palette of amber, umber, ochre. Preservation not borne of necessity but of pure curiosity. Luxury.
Made with a Musquee de Provence Pumpkin. When you crack them open they look like giant papayas. Do not attempt with your common jack-o-lantern, they are far too dry and flavorless. A crunchy and juicy 2mm julienne works well. They are not at all fibrous. Brine the color and body of orange juice. The scallions for color and crunch. The Espelettes add a well balanced warmth.
Fairytale pumpkin. Enormous pleated flesh colored things that decorate the front of our shop all winter. We set the 1/4-inch thick slices into our favorite barley miso in January 2012. At this point, some eighteen months later, they are great. Part pumpkin, part miso with a fabulous texture.
Again we used the fairytale here. We adore this pickle. The color has remained rich and vibrant. Though thoroughly fermented, there is still a textural snap and crunch that gives you the raw experience. The floral components of the koji and the booziness of sake pair so well with the natural sweetness of the pumpkin.
Standard and reliable. The squash will retain its texture better if each piece is cut with a bit of the rind side intact. This kimchi is one of our perennial fall favorites. We have paired the butternut with various mushrooms and even huitlacoche, always with great results. Note: Shiitakes will often cause accelerated textural breakdown in ferments, so be prepared for things to be a bit softer if you choose to work with them.
Totally seductive, effervescent butterscotch. Pumpkin-Rooibos Kombucha is a warm caramel union of rich, earthy, red Rooibos tea and deep golden Fairytale pumpkin. We join the bright southern light of the high desert of South Africa with the autumnal glow of Northern California.1 It’s a delicious beverage.
We’ll venture to say that the exploration of winter squashes has been and is one of the most gratifying projects of the shop. Beautiful. Mind-Expansive. Conversation-Forwarding. Unexpected.
-Kevin & Alex
1-Victoria K Fort