I’m wild about Kabocha squash. When autumn comes, I head for those gnarly green pumpkin-like winter squashes. Some kabochas are orange-red, but I prefer the green ones for these recipes. For soup or as a side dish, they’re the best.
While you may use any winter squash or pumpkin, none has quite the delicious flavor of Kabocha. Kabocha looks like a dark green pumpkin and is sometimes referred to as Japanese pumpkin.
A kabocha that's ready for slaughter. Note the crusty protuberances that indicate a mature specimen.
If the kabocha is smooth and shiny green, it is immature and will not have the deep flavor that’s best for this recipe. Unlike most squash, the kabocha needs some time to age after it has been picked to develop its deep rich flavor, which at its best even has a hint of chestnut. Find one with a dried stem and lumpy rough skin, often with raised, dried bumps. It doesn’t look pretty in a conventional way. It should also feel heavy, which indicates a thick flesh.
I like to use kabocha in several ways—as a side dish, either roasted cubes or a smooth puree, and as a delicious soup. It can be used in any recipes calling for pumpkins and will provide a better flavor for any pumpkin dish—even pumpkin pie.
The easiest way to cook the flesh is to microwave it. It may also be steamed or roasted. The method you choose depends on how you plan to use the squash. If you are planning to use it as a non-pureed vegetable side dish, I recommend roasting it. If you are making a puree or soup, microwaving or steaming is easier. All the methods will work.
Preparing the squash
All recipes start with separating the flesh from the skin. Then, you have the choice of roasting, steaming, or microwaving the squash.
- Carefully pierce the squash in several places with a sharp paring knife. I usually pierce the top of the squash to minimize the risk of the knife slipping. Be careful.
- Microwave the whole squash for 5 minutes. This will make cutting and peeling easier.
- Carefully cut in half with a sharp knife, and scrape out the seeds. If the seeds are nice & plump, they can be washed, dried, and roasted like any pumpkin seeds.
- With a sharp peeler, cut away the skin. It comes off easily. It’s safest to cut away from yourself—less chance of slipping and slicing you. To get a better grasp, use a paper towel to grab the edge as you’re peeling. Remove all the outer skin.
- Cut squash into 1-inch cubes, if you are roasting it for a side dish, or larger, even-size chunks, if you are microwaving or steaming it.
Roasting the squash
- To roast for a vegetable side dish, toss with salt, vegetable oil, or herbal marinade (recipe follows). I like to spray the roasting pan with non-stick spray to keep the squash from sticking to the pan.
- Roast in a pre-heated 375 degree oven, until lightly browned and tender, about 40 minutes. Stir and turn the squash every 15 minutes for even cooking.
Using an herbal marinade vastly improves the flavor of the roasted squash. To prepare the herbal marinade, use some combination of the following herbs: rosemary, thyme, sage. Sage is very complementary, but has a strong flavor, so use judiciously. Put the selection of herbs into a blender jar, with one part herbs to 2 parts oil—olive, corn, or canola, i.e., one tablespoon herbs to 2 tablespoons oil. Add a few cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste, and 1 or 2 Turkish bay leaves (I find the California bay leaves much too astringent). Blend them to break the herbs down as a finely as possible—5 to 10 minutes depending on the strength of your blender. Strain the mixture through a strainer and it is ready to use. Any excess marinade freezes well for future use.
Steaming the squash
If you want to steam the squash, peel and cut into 1″ cubes. If using a steamer, place into the bottom of a pot and add water to 1/2 inch below the bottom of the steamer. Cook, covered, until the squash is tender—approximately 35-40 minutes. You may want to stir once for more even cooking.
Microwaving the squash
- Place squash in a microwave-safe bowl
- Add squash chunks and 1/4 c. water to help create steam
- Cover with a microwave-safe plate. Cook at high in 10 minute increments until tender (30-40 minutes). The bowl will be very hot, so remove carefully from the microwave, to avoid being burned.
Kabocha Squash Soup
- 4 cups kabocha squash, microwaved, steamed or roasted, as explained above
- 2 cups leeks, cleaned and sliced for best flavor OR 2 cups chopped yellow onions (acceptable but pedestrian)
- 4-5 pieces of garlic, peeled
- 1 tablespoon fresh cooking oil (olive, corn, Canola or peanut) or herbal marinade (recipe above), and 1 tablespoon for sautéing the apples
- If you are not using the herbal marinade, add the following herbs:
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme (If using dried, sniff it—if it doesn’t scream thyme, buy a fresh batch)
- 1 teaspoon sage, or scant 1/2 teaspoon dried sage.
- 2 bay leaves
- 1-2 quarts vegetable or chicken stock (depends on how thick you like your soup)
- 1 cup dry white wine, vermouth, or dry sherry (optional but adds flavor)
- 2 apples—Fuji or Granny Smith, or ripe pears (If the pears have no perfume, they will have no taste—smell them)
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (bottled juice is about as tasty as battery acid and has no place in a serious kitchen)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper or to taste
- Prepare the squash as described above, microwaving, steaming, or roasting it.
- Clean the leeks by cutting lengthwise and running under cool water to remove any sand. While most recipes call for using only the light green and white parts, the dark green outer leaves are full of flavor. Unless they are desiccated and bruised, they are very usable as long as they are well washed. Since they are tougher I usually cook them separately from the more tender parts of the leek. Slice the leeks (or onions, yawn) into 1/2 inch pieces and cook with the garlic in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, covered, over a medium heat until tender, 20-25 minutes or until meltingly soft. Be careful with your flame and avoid burning by stirring every five minutes; be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan when you do. I use the non-reactive pot I will be cooking the soup in to save cleanup.
- When leeks are ready, add the squash, stock and wine/sherry, bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper. Simmer for half an hour. Allow to cool to lukewarm.
- Peel the apples or pears, cut into small dice, toss with the lemon juice, sauté in 1 tablespoon of hot oil until lightly golden, drain or blot on paper towels and then set aside.
- Remove the bay leaves from the stock. Use a blender to puree the squash and stock mixture. Be careful—if the mixture is too warm in the blender, it can splatter all over. So allow the stock to cool before this step. If you keep the blender lid slightly ajar and start on a slow speed this can be avoided. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed. If the Queen herself is coming to dinner you may strain it for a perfectly lump free soup. Otherwise it’s ready to serve.
- Reheat until piping hot.
- Stir in the apples/pears.
Garnishes and embellishments
- Chopped Italian parsley, basil, or chives add a nice herbal touch.
- If the apple/pear step is too daunting, you may use diced dried fruit; add it to the soup before the final reheating, do not puree.
- grated cheese, a quality cheddar is a good choice as well as Piave a firm flavorful Italian cheese I love.
- tofu. I like the soft custardy tofu. Add tofu to bottom of the bowl and pour very hot soup over it.
- nuts, lightly toasted—almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachio or pine nuts.
- a disk of warm goat cheese in the bottom the bowl waiting to be discovered.
- sliced or rough chopped, roasted chestnuts. Best is to use fresh chestnuts, either roasted or boiled, but this can be very labor intensive. Vacuum packed chestnuts are acceptable; be sure to pick through them to remove any remaining membrane fragments before using.
- An exciting development is the availability of fresh American-grown chestnuts. (A Google search will let you know how to order them online.) The big advantage of these chestnuts is that they peel very easily, including the membrane (pellicle) that covers the chestnut kernel. If you have tried this with imported chestnuts, you know how frustrating and difficult this can be.
- Place the flatest side down on a cutting board and carefully cut in half, drop them into boiling water, and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Drain. As soon as you can handle them, peel the shell and pellicle off. Use only nuts with a creamy yellow color. Avoid those with discoloring and brown spots.
- I then simmer them in some stock until tender.
- I then poke them with a flat spatula to break them into smaller pieces.
- Stir into the soup while heating before serving.
- Chestnuts are low in fat, and perishable, so keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.
I also like to drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over the surface.
Serve with crusty bread, ideally lightly toasted and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
Kabocha Squash as a side dish
I serve Kabocha two ways as a side dish. First is roasted cubes of squash with herbs, and second is pureed with leeks, garlic and olive oil. Pureed is my preference—it’s a wonderful comfort food, like mashed potatoes, and is delicious.
Roasted Kabocha Squash
Prepare and peel the squash as above, cutting it into one inch pieces. I recommend the roasting method for the best flavor.
Once it’s cooked, it is ready to serve. If you are steaming, I suggest a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil before serving.
Pureed Kabocha Squash
To make a squash puree, place the cooked squash into the bowl of a food processor. For every cup of cooked squash, add 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Puree until smooth. You can add a tablespoon or two of boiling water to help the process. Adding 1/4 to 1/2 cups of cooked leeks will contribute extra flavor and texture, resulting in a more delicious flavor. Another good addition is roasted garlic. I like to add several cloves for each cup of cooked squash.
It is ready to use. Squash puree freezes well and with some stock can quickly become a soup.