I recently enjoyed a squash soup with barley at a friend’s house. She had purchased a squash that was being sold as kabocha, a Japanese winter pumpkin with hard green skin and vivid dark orange flesh. Since I cook often with kabocha, I immediately recognized that she had been a victim of mislabeling. The soup was still quite good (the barley an inspired addition), but it didn’t have the characteristic denseness and sweetness of my favorite winter squash.
If you haven’t tried kabocha, get thee to an Asian market and pick one up. Buttercup squash is rather more light and fluffy, with a more subtle taste. Its relative, kabocha, has drier flesh, and it isn’t at all stringy. Another tip-off is the seeds — kabocha seeds have very thick skin and can’t really be eaten with pleasure like buttercup squash seeds can. They look very similar, like squat green, striped/speckled pumpkins, but the buttercup sometimes (not always!) has a protrusion on the top that looks like an overturned cup. Both are a pain to prepare, as they are rock hard and solid.
We grow more buttercup than kabocha in the Willamette Valley, but sometimes you can find some at a market stand. It’s worth growing your own or finding a local vendor, as home-grown kabocha is particularly delicious. And I would know, because my squirrels ate all of mine last year while they were still on the vine.
Next recipe: squirrel stew.
Although kabocha makes a wonderful soup and the best, creamy, rich, deeply flavored pumpkin pie in the world, I most often simmer my kabocha as “nimono,” a class of Japanese dishes often translated as “boiled things.” I will often add ground pork and just eat the kabocha with a bowl of rice, as generations of Japanese home cooks do. Sometimes I add a bit of miso to the broth, as Japanese home cooks don’t. When I was living in Japan, I’d make what I termed “fortified miso,” which was a big pot of miso soup with kabocha chunks and tofu in it. Yum.
With any boiled preparation, kabocha is filling, low-fat, nutrient-dense, and delicious. It’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, but looks aren’t everything. Often, the skin is partially sliced off prior to cooking, creating a mottled effect, but it’s also left intact to help keep the chunks together and add more fiber.
Kabocha Nimono (Simmered Japanese Pumpkin)
Serves 4-6 with other dishes.
- 1 small to medium kabocha
- 1/3 lb. ground pork (optional)
- 2 cups dashi*
- 2 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 Tbsp soy sauce
- salt and white pepper to taste
- finely chopped green onion as garnish (optional)
Wash the kabocha well. Peel the kabocha in an irregular pattern with a sharp, sturdy vegetable peeler. Kabocha are very hard, so be careful with your peeler and knife.
Using a cleaver or other thick, sturdy chef’s knife, maneuver a good slice off the bottom of the squash. This will steady it for the next step. Next, keeping your fingers well out of the way, whack the kabocha in half with a confident blow to the middle of the squash. Wriggle and saw your knife down into the middle, and crack open the squash to reveal seeds.
Remove seeds and discard. They’re too tough for roasting. Scrape inside of cavity with large serving spoon to smooth out jagged bits of flesh.
Cut the kabocha into wedges, then into two-bite-sized pieces. Don’t cut them too small, or they will fall apart when simmering.
If you are using it, fry the ground pork in a medium-sized pot on medium-high heat with a bit of vegetable oil. When the pieces are browned, add dashi and bring to a gentle boil.
If you are not using pork, bring dashi to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium, and add mirin, sugar and soy. Taste liquid with spoon — if it tastes too much like washwater, add a bit more salt and/or sugar. Do not add more soy, as it will darken the squash too much.
Add the kabocha pieces, skin side down. Bring to a gentle boil, then turn heat down to low. Cover pot with lid (or if you have one, a Japanese wooden drop lid or other disk-like lid that can submerge the squash down into the liquid).
Let simmer for about 20 minutes, allowing the liquid to soak in to the kabocha until it is less than half the original amount. Poke with a sharp knife. The pieces should yield easily. When simmered properly, the squash will not be falling apart, but will be soft and cooked throughout.
Place in small bowls (2-3 pieces per serving as a side dish), garnish with green onion slices, and serve with rice and other dishes. Pieces of leftover kabocha can be cut into smaller pieces and added to miso soup with leftover liquid the next day, or added to a bento lunchbox. Keeps well in the refrigerator for several days, and it is good at room temperature as well as hot.
*Dashi soup stock is traditionally made of flaked, dried bonito fish and kelp, but is usually purchased as a powder (dashi-no-moto) to add to water (like a bouillon cube, I suppose). There are also liquid dashi-no-moto. Both may contain preservatives, so choose wisely, and follow the instructions on the package. You can substitute chicken broth or water, but it won’t have the same flavor. Dashi provides umami and depth to the dish.