So. September. Summer is still going in my mind because at the time of writing this I can hear cicadas buzzing outside the window. This month feels a bit transitory because it’s still hot and humid here but there are whispers of “pumpkin spice” and “Halloween” and “sweaters.” I’m totally not ready to make the change to fall this year because my summer went by in a work-filled flash, so I’m going to cling to these final few weeks of heat and sweat, but because I am greedy I am also going to try to reap the benefits of some of the goodness fall is already offering.
One of the things I never cooked with when I lived in the States was kabocha, a Japanese pumpkin. I imagine many Westerners think of pumpkins as orange, basketball-sized doorstops that are only useful for decorating porches at the end of October. This, of course, is the primary function of Big Orange Pumpkin in the West, but here in East Japan, there is the kabocha, and its primary function is to be delicious.
Kabocha are smallish and dark green and have very, very thick skin. Seriously, if you try to cut it with even the sharpest of knives, watch out; knives will slip right across the surface and into your FLESH (speaking *a bit* from experience here). You can typically find them pre-cut in supermarkets in Japan; in slices, in chunks, or even just cut halves. I think I’ve purchased a whole kabocha exactly once in my life and I will likely never do it again due to how hard it was to cut open. Really. You can roast them to make the skins a bit softer if you want to, but if I’m roasting, I do it with halved cuts to save myself a bit of time and elbow grease (and to reduce potential for kabocha-cutting related injuries). Roasting enables much easier scooping of innards, too. Additional bonus: roasted seeds. Amazing.
Kabocha have a sweet, earthy flavor and are commonly used for desserts. They don’t have that overwhelming pumpkinishness about them (anyone who has ever carved a big orange pumpkin knows this smell; the one that lingers in the kitchen for a while after the family’s designated carving afternoon). They have a mellow, clear taste that is extraordinarily good in soups, roasted with salt and pepper, or fried (hey hey, tempura).
One of my favorite recipes that uses kabocha is also a recipe I think fits perfectly with this time of year; it’s not quite summer, not quite autumn. The dish isn’t really spicy, and isn’t really sweet; it’s called a Moroccan Stew, and features a really interesting mix of cinnamon, cumin, and cayenne alongside a bunch of late summer vegetables and ALL THE GARLIC IN YOUR HOUSE. Protein in the dish comes from lentils and chickpeas, the former of which is tossed with thyme and olive oil (after being boiled with MORE GARLIC). It’s topped with Greek yogurt and cilantro.
It is GOD. DAMN. DELICIOUS.
The recipe makes enough for about 6 servings, and I find I can eat this for a couple days in a row without getting tired of it; that’s how much I love it. It just makes you feel good. The original recipe calls for a butternut squash, but I’ve adapted it for kabocha and think the results are lovely. I imagine any sweetish squashy vegetable (we use highly technical terms on this very professional blog) would be fine to substitute if you’re lacking in the kabocha department.
What excites me most about this one is the combination of the sweet flavors with the earthy ones. It’s soul-warming but not the sort of stew you want to have next to a fire. It’s the kind of thing you eat on a covered patio with a couple of your closest friends and a bottle of wine (or 2) on a warm summer evening after a long hard day of doing nothing but enjoying one another’s company.
I’m not Moroccan, but to me, this is a dish with soul. It’s not going to win any awards for presentation and probably won’t be the hit of any dinner parties. It’s the kind of thing you quietly and calmly enjoy with that right group of people. Make this one with love.
Huge, huge thanks to the original recipe writer for the delicious and gentle transition to autumn! Hope readers enjoy this variation on the theme.