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From seed to skin
To peel or not to peel? When it comes to squash, it's worth finding out whether the skin is edible. The skin varies from one variety to the next and can taste really good.
For a long time, I didn't know that certain types of squash don't need peeling. This is partly due to the fact that we primarily only had access to the large, orange muscat pumpkins in this country until the 1990s. And these absolutely have to be peeled. In recent years, however, there has been something of a squash revolution in Switzerland, and an increasing number of different varieties have hit our shelves.
Hokkaido squash is a popular variety from Japan that belongs to the American Hubbard squash group and has been grown in Switzerland since the 1990s. As with many other varieties, Hokkaido (or red kuri) squash can be eaten with the skin on.
Some experts have a few tricks up their sleeve to determine whether or not a squash should be peeled.
According to Dieter Weber, who grows over 100 different varieties of squash on his farm "Obere Wanne" in Liestal, "if the skin of the squash feels smooth and hard, as if varnished, then it should be removed". And how do you know if the skin is edible? "If you close your eyes and run your fingers over it and the skin feels porous, then you can usually eat it", the expert replies. Meret Bissegger, Swiss wild herb and vegetable expert, uses the fingernail test. As a general rule, if your fingernail gently pierces the skin, you can eat it.
A wonderful example of this is the Delicata, a medium-sized, elongated, whitish-green squash. Farmer Dieter Weber recently introduced me to this particular variety and explained how to prepare it – cut open the squash, remove the seeds, fill with butter, salt and garlic. Then roast in the oven at 190°C for approx. 30 to 40 mins. This is a fantastic recipe that requires minimal effort and ingredients, and tastes incredibly good to boot. You can also leave the skin on certain varieties when making soups. The red kuri squash is one such example. You can save yourself the hassle of peeling it and simply remove the seeds and fibres from the inside.
In the context of my "Leaf to Root" project, I'm always looking to identify those parts of the plant that are edible – and also taste good. The pumpkin seeds that we usually buy from the shops are dark green and come from Styrian pumpkins. With this particular variety, there is no tough shell surrounding the pumpkin seeds so you can snack on them like nuts. The Styrian pumpkin is an exception, however, as the seeds of our conventional squash come with tough shells. You can roast them in the oven with a little oil and salt and snack on them (complete with shells) but the shells can be fibrous, depending on the variety. However, I have found references in history books to roasted pumpkin seeds being used as a popular children's snack in days gone by. And in the South, children learn to crack the pumpkin seeds with their teeth and spit out the tough bits.
The sheer variety of squash available means that the vegetable is no longer a major concern for Pro Specie Rara, an organization which seeks to preserve traditional species. However, there is a local variety in Switzerland known as the Potiron de Genève. All other commercially available varieties come from outside of the country. Some older varieties are currently being displaced by more modern varieties. "Nowadays, smaller varieties of squash are in demand", explains Philipp Holzherr from Pro Specie Rara. For example, there's a variety called "Olive" with "an intensely fruity aroma", recounts Holzherr enthusiastically. "But the squash are too big for retail". Nevertheless, this variety is worth preserving. Its characteristics may one day be incorporated into the cultivation of new varieties.
The production of pumpkin seeds is an art in itself. If the flowers are pollinated with pollen from other varieties, for example that of ornamental pumpkins, the vegetables produced the following year may be poisonous. This makes species preservation a complex affair. "We have to cover the flowers so that the bees don't spread any foreign pollen", says Philipp Holzherr from Pro Specie Rara. "You practically have to take on the bees' role and pollinate the flowers yourself by hand".
Nevertheless, Pro Specie Rara's seed pool is growing. And thanks to the Delicata, the organization now also has a squash that is available in supermarkets. It is commercial and very easy to prepare (see column).
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