Kabocha (Japanese pumpkin / squash) has long been one of my favorite vegetables, ever since I tasted it for the first time fried up as tempura at Tenya, the tendon chain where I ate at least two or three times a week during my first three years in Japan. It’s delicious baked in gratin. The wonderful vegetarian Indian restaurant Nataraj made excellent kabocha masala. It’s also great in Thai curries as a substitute for potatoes. It works great mixed in with carrot-ginger soup. It even works in desserts–custard, muffins, you name it.
Much as I love kabocha, I’ve been reluctant to cook with it since I got back to the States three years ago. Maybe it’s because in traditional supermarkets you can only buy a whole kabocha instead of a quarter–it’s a fairly large, heavy vegetable that takes up a lot of room, and I always worried that I wouldn’t be able to use more than half of it . Luckily a trip to Mitsuwa supermarket last weekend yielded quarter-kabocha for only 75 cents, so I knew it was time to experiment. And as others have pointed out, the whole vegetable makes a nice decoration until you’re ready to cook it, and it keeps forever.
Unfortunately my first experiment–slices of kabocha drizzled in olive oil and roasted in the oven–was a bust; the slices were too thin, the oven was too hot, and the result was a blackened mess. But then I found this recipe for kabocha with pasta–another dish I’d had many times in Japan–and gave it a try. Long story short, it was fabulous! Simple, rich but not heavy, buttery but not oily. I’m already looking forward to eating the leftovers.
A few tips for cooking great kabocha:
1. When roasting or cooking the kabocha in curries, as tempura, or in gratin, there’s no need to peel off the green skin. Some people prefer it, but whenever I ate it in Japan it always had the skin on. For the pasta recipe below I removed the skin just because I had a feeling it would cook faster. Obviously if you’re going to leave the skin on you should wash the vegetable first.
2. Kabocha can take a little while to soften–cut it into fairly small pieces for this pasta recipe. If you’re roasting, though, don’t cut it too thin or it’ll burn. For curries, you might want to steam or boil the pieces for a bit first.
3. It takes a little strength to cut, especially if you’ve bought a whole pumpkin (Asian supermarkets usually sell smaller portions). Be patient and move your knife gradually through the skin to avoid cutting yourself.
4. Be sure to remove the seeds (they can be roasted separately with salt).