Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love the kabocha! My first kabocha experience was in cooking school, when a side dish of the squash, baked and mashed, was featured in a Friday Night Dinner created by our class. The mash was creamy, sweet, denser in texture and more flavorful than the usual squash puree. I was surprised to see flecks of green here and there, too -- turns out that the kabocha, with its tender and edible skin, does not even require peeling. Three helpings later, I had been converted into a kabocha aficionado; ever since then I've been unable to resist picking up one or two when I spot them at the greenmarket.
The kabocha's dense flesh holds up well in a variety of preparations. In addition to baking and mashing, it is delicious cubed and roasted, simmered in soup, or steamed. Sweet and nutty, with a flavor often likened to chestnut, the kabocha is a promising candidate for dessert, too. A kabocha pie would be tasty, I'm sure, but I'm referring to something far simpler: a few chunks of cooked kabocha after a meal can nicely satisfy the sweet tooth. There are a few different varieties of kabocha - some have deep green exteriors, others are pale grayish-green, and there is also a richly orange-hued variety. The paler pumkins tend to be the driest and least sweet, while the orange-skinned seem to be the sweetest with the most tender skin (the dark green pumpkins fall somewhere in between).
Ozu, a macrobiotic-focused Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side, offers an appetizer of steamed root vegetables and squash that includes kabocha. Steaming preserves the firm texture of the squash and is a lighter method of cooking than roasting or baking -- more expansive, according to macrobiotic principles -- making it a good method to balance its grounding energy. Ozu serves their steamed root veg and squash dish without any adornment, but I decided to dress mine up a bit with an Asian-inspired mixture of shoyu, ginger, garlic, mirin, and toasted sesame oil. The combination was a perfect contrast to the kabocha's natural sweetness.
steamed kabocha squash with shoyu-ginger sauce
1 kabocha squash, halved, stem and seeds removed, cut into 3/4-inch chunks (about 4 cups)
1/4 cup shoyu (traditionally fermented Japanese soy sauce)
2 Tbsp mirin (Japanese rice wine)
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp brown rice vinegar
1 Tbsp grated or minced ginger
1 garlic clove, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
Steam the squash, covered, until tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 to 20 minutes (I used a steamer basked set inside a medium size pot).
Whisk together the remaining ingredients in a small sauce pan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes, uncovered, until the sauce thickens slightly.
Drizzle the sauce over the squash just before serving, or serve on the side for dipping.