My childhood memories of squash are not fond. During the winters along the Lower Columbia River, we ate an abundance of squash in all its many forms. After all, it was cheap, easy to grow, and stored well. There was, however, this slight problem with monotony..soul crushing monotony. I was a little surprised, when I got older, that there was more than one way to cook a squash. And that other people were doing more than baking them with butter and brown sugar. How was I to know? I also remember being delighted when I found out that, once I stopped bathing all squash in butter and sugar, that different types of squash taste…different. Weird. I never saw that one coming.
Kabocha squash is a great example. It is a deep green, thin skinned squash commonly used in Japanese dishes; although there it is called a pumpkin. The flesh is mildly sweet, fine-grained and rich in in flavor. The skin is delicate enough to eat and, because you leave it on, contributes to some pretty good looking dishes. For this side dish, we add to these already solid traits by simmering the squash in dashi (Sea Stock) and lemon juice. The lemon balances out the sweetness of the squash and the dashi brings some fine, smoky overtones.
The dish is really simple and quick to make, since all we are doing is simmering some cubed squash chunks in a liquid. The level of detail that I go into below may seem ridiculous, but attention to detail will make this dish faster and easier to cook. First, remove the seeds and cut your kabocha into bite-sized chunks. Pay attention to how you do this because you want your chunks to be wider than they are thick. That way they stay in one place, with the skin-side down when you simmer them. If your chunks are narrow at the back and wedge-shaped they will irritate you during the cooking process. Use a sharp knife and try not to cut your hand off during this stage, as blood loss with hamper your ability to finish supper.
Once you have your chunks, prepare your simmering fluid by combining the dashi, lemon juice and mirin in a measuring cup. If you don’t have experience with dashi, it is easy to make; the process is described in this post. If you don’t want to make your own, you can find instant dashi granules at most asian groceries. After you have prepared your stock, place the kabocha chunks skin-side down in a medium sauce pan so that they form a single layer. Add the stock to partially cover. You want the tops of your chunks to be at or just above the surface of the stock.
This dish is what introduced me to using a dropped lid when simmering vegetables. Pictured to the right, this lid is really just a chunk of wood with a ridge down it’s back. For such a simple thing, it plays a really critical role; it holds your food in place so that the pieces don’t degrade and it decreases the cooking time significantly by holding in a lot of steam and heat. Pretty nice thing. You can either make one or, as I did, buy one from MTC Kitchen. Get one that leaves about 1/2 inches of slack between it and the pan edge. If you don’t have such a lid you can use a plate or lid that fits inside the pan, but it is less than ideal.
With your squash chunks safely under your dropped lid, bring to a boil over medium high heat and then adjust the heat down to maintain a simmer for about 3 to 4 minutes. After this short amount of cooking, the squash should be tender when tested with a fork or toothpick. Gently flip the pieces over, replace the lid and continue cooking for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the soy sauce, remove from heat, and let cool for about a minute prior to serving.
I usually plate the cooked pieces and let them cool to room temperature prior to serving. A drizzle of concentrated soy finishes the dish off and adds just a little bit of richness. Garnishing with lemon zest is probably nice, but I never bother since I am too lazy to zest lemons, apparently. I am indebted to Elizabeth Anoh for taking the time to present this dish (or something similar) in her book Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen. It is a great book if you are interested in Japanese cooking. It presents excellent recipes as well as a lot of information that is more philosophical in nature. I highly recommend checking it out.
I think you will be pleasantly surprised by how complex and light this dish is. It manages to avoid the cloying sweetness and heaviness that comes along with a lot of squash preparations. Try it and let us know what you think.
- 2 cups dashi (sea stock)
- ⅓ cup lemon juice
- 3 to 4 Tbs. mirin
- ½ kabocha squash cut into chucks about 1½" in dimension
- 3 tsp. soy sauce
- Cut squash into square pieces that are wider than they are thick and arrange, in a single layer, in a medium sauce pan with the skin side down.
- Prepare simmering fluid by combining dashi, lemon juice, and mirin. Add to pan until squash pieces are slightly exposed.
- Cover with a dropped wooden lid and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Flip pieces, replace lid and simmer for an additional 2 to 3 minutes. Add soy sauce and remove from heat. Allow to cool about 1 to 2 minutes.
- Plate squash pieces and allow to cool to room temperature. Garnish with lemon zest and a drizzle of concentrated soy.