The Pumpkin Series: Askutasquash, meaning "Eaten Raw or Uncooked"

I cannot do a series on cooking pumpkins and not start at the beginning. And the beginning of all pumpkins starts with the Native Americans who took this small, bitter fruit and through thousands of years of agricultural growth and migration throughout the Americas, created something both versatile and tasty in many forms of cooking.

The term “squash” comes from the Narragansett or the Massachusetts term (there’s some debate on who) “askutasquash” which means “eaten raw or uncooked”.  Though there were many other Native terms for the pumpkin, since it had traveled from its place of origins in southern Mexico throughout the Americas, this particular term became the name we use still today. The word pumpkin comes from the French term “pompion”, which is derived from the Greek word “pepon” which means “large melon”. It was the term used more by the European settlers, though both words are use interchangeably today.      

The use and versatility of this plant was not lost on Natives.  It was a very important component to the Native practice of “Three Sisters” planting.  This concept is that the corn stalk is a good climbing stake for beans, which in turn put nitrogen in the ground that the corn consumes, while the pumpkins climb along the ground in between the cornstalks, not only keeping moisture in the ground by the shade of their large leaves, but also keeping the weeds down naturally.  It is considered one of the most efficient planting systems in agricultural history. 

There is also is great variety in the way that the noble squash can be cooked as well. The flesh of the fruit is very good stewed, fried, baked, roasted, and all parts of the plant can be consumed.  In fact, due to the bitterness of wild squash in its native area of Central America, there is a belief that when first consumed it was either just for the cooked seeds, or the whole plant was processed and stewed down, thereby taking away some of that bitterness.  But, over thousands of years or planting evolution and migration, the squash/pumpkin evolved into many varieties, and with that many different ways of cooking them.  With its hard outer shell, it becomes the perfect cooking vessel on its own when placed in a bed of hot coals.  The softer flesh inside will soften and cook down faster than the outside, making a very convenient stew pot.  But it is not so hard that it can not be cut up and stewed down in another vessel.  Or fried in fat.  Or preserved by being cut into strips and being dried out for future use.

Sadly, there is a limited written record on probably the the thousands of recipes developed by Native Americans for squash.  But through certain records, and by the many Native people who are working to preserve their cooking heritage, there are several Native American squash recipes to choose from.  But I chose this one in particular because I recently got the cookbook!  The cookbook is The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Chef Sean Sherman.  He is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and has been working to make Native flavors and recipes more accessible. And, though his cooking techniques are modern, he uses only ingredients and flavors native to the Americas.  

So here's the recipe I chose...     

“Squash and Apple Soup”

2 Tablespoons sunflower oil
1 wild onion, chopped, or ¼ cup chopped shallot
2 pounds winter squash, seeded, peeled, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 tart apple, cored and chopped
1 cup cider
3 cups Corn Stock (Veggie Stock)
1 Tablespoon maple syrup, or to taste
Salt to taste
Sumac to taste

Heat the oil in a deep heavy saucepan over medium heat and saute the onion, squash, and apple until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the cider and stock, increase the heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the squash is very tender, about 20 minutes.  With an immersion blender or working batches with a blender, puree the soup and return to the pot to warm.  Season to taste with maple syrup, salt, and sumac. 

Now, a few notes about this recipe.  First, there is the addition of homemade cranberry sauce to the original recipe.  I took it out because I didn't have cranberries at the time to make it.  But that will certainly be made sometime in the near future!  Also, if you are a nerdy food historian like myself, you'll wonder why apples appear in this recipe if it's mainly working with ingredients native to the Americas.  Well yes, the apples we know of today are native to Europe and propagated by colonists.  But there are native crab apples that are much smaller and very tart in flavor.  So, even though the apples used in this recipe are a European addition, the flavor of tart apples is still a native flavor.

For this recipe I decided to use the acorn squash.  Not only because it's a very versatile winter squash but it also is very ancient in its origins, dating back 4000 years ago to Central Mexico.  I though it would be good to use a squash that was used for thousands of years the same way, prized for its firm flesh that can withstand a variety of cooking techniques as well as for its thick skin that allows it to keep for a long time.

So to start I processed the acorn squash, by cutting it in half, taking out the seeds and inner membranes, and then peeling off the skin.  I used my knife to cut away the skin, but I made sure that what I was cutting was flat on one side so it would stay put while I cut. Squash is very slippery to work with, and it is very easy to cut yourself while cutting it up.  So please, take my word for it, be careful!!!

Once the squash was deseeded and pealed, I cut them into the 1 inch cubes that were desired, well roughly.  I think they were a little smaller, but then again I didn't take a ruler out to measure.

Once the squash was set I cored and peeled the tart apple I had (it was a Cortland).  Then I cut it into 1 inch cubes as well.  Then I peeled and chopped one shallot, as shown above.  I didn't have access to any wild onions at the moment, sadly.  

Once the squash, apple and shallot was cut up, I heated some sunflower oil in the bottom of my dutch oven.  Then I sauteed the squash, apple and shallot together will it browned.  It smelled marvelous!  It actually reminded me of a recipe I love to do at this time of year (aptly named "Squash, Apples and Onions").  Since these were the exact ingredients it shouldn't have surprised me.  

Please note above that I managed to stifle the inclination to season the veggies at this moment.  Mainly because the recipe doesn't call for it at this time.  But, if I was allowed, I would have used salt and pepper (though pepper is not a spice native to the Americas).

As the squash/apple/shallot sauteed, I got the veggie stock and cider ready.  I wish I had some corn stock available.  It's something I'll have to make the next time I try this recipe.  But I had veggie stock available, so that seemed like a good substitute.  And the cider came from one of the apple farms in the area I live.  It's one of my favorite things about this time of year!  YUM!  

Once the veggies had started to brown and soften, I added the stock and cider, and then let it boil for about twenty minutes. 

In the mean time, I pulled out the rest of the flavorings.  I was happy to be able to use some leftover maple syrup from our travels in New Hampshire.  And I was curious to try cooking with Sumac.  It's a flavor profile I hadn't really tried before.  I tasted it and it had a tart but earthy flavor.  It was rather pleasant.  I will have to try it with more recipes in the future.

After 20 minutes, this is what the mixture looked like.  I wish I had a way to record what it smelled like.  In a word, heavenly!  It had such a pleasing aroma.

Now, the recipe calls for an immersion blender or blending it in batches in the blender.  I don't own an immersion blender (though I think I'll add it to my Christmas list) and it was late at night and I didn't want to set up and wash my blender.  And, since they wouldn't have had blenders back them, I thought mashing it would be more authentic.  So I did it that way.  By this point all the veggies were nice and soft, so they were able to mash easily.  Then I seasoned it with the maple syrup, salt and sumac.

Voila!  I know, it doesn't look that appetizing.  And my husband confirmed this when he glanced in the pot.   It tastes a lot better than it looks though! 

It had a very hearty taste, and diverse in its flavoring.  The tartness coming from the apple and sumac was a great compliment to the sweetness of the cooked squash and onion.  I feel like the stewed cranberry sauce would compliment it even more if I had made it.  

I can also see why the recipe calls for the soup to be blended.  I found myself wanting a creamier texture as I ate it.  And even my husband made the same comment, since I make him taste everything I cook for this blog.  And, though I know adding butter or cream would take away from the Native American flavors, I think it would have made it that much better.  

All in all a really good soup! I would make again when it's a cool fall day and I'm in the mood for something warm and filling!     


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