A couple of weeks ago I found this squash or perhaps pumpkin at a roadside farm stand near Woolwine, VA. (Don't you just love that name, Woolwine?) What's it called? I asked. Permelon, the farmer answered.
Then I saw this bin of Pink Bananas between Fruitland and Hendersonville:
The very next day, at the City Market in Asheville, there were more of these long, cylindrical squash, with a sign that said CANDY ROASTERS.
What gives with all the names?
Turns out they are all of the Cucurbita maxima family, which makes me wonder if the squash were so named because of the faint cucumber scent of its flesh.
I do know that Candy Roasters, Permelons, and Pink Bananas are all prized heirloom squash that old-timers are quick to tell you that of course, they're great for making pies. "Or whatever you do with pumpkin," said one impatient older lady.
FROM THE CHEROKEES
The Cherokee people cultivated this squash that migrated to North America, from South America, by the 16th century, and eventually shared the seeds with European settlers. Today, it's still grown all over the southern Appalachians.
Georgia has a variety of Candy Roaster, and sites post "do not confuse with the Carolina Candy Roaster which is slightly different." And vice versa . . . As if one state could lay claim to the delicious orange and sweet flesh. The variety also makes its home in Bangladesh, Burma and India. How's that for traveling around the world?
Part of my trouble in identifying the Candy Roaster aka Pink Banana also known as a Permelon, is that the C. maxima varies so much by shape, size and color. It can be pink or blue or gray. Tubular, round, tear-drop or squat. Most weigh in at 15 pounds, but can grow as large as 250 pounds.
ROASTING THE "THING" - HOW TO
I love roasting veggies, so thought I'd roast the Candy Roaster/Permelon with a sweet onion.
So to best manage this long squash that hung over my cutting board, I chopped both ends off, then sliced open the middle. The scent of cucumber floated up. The center was full of round, plump seeds, and the filaments scraped away easily.
After simply slicing off the outer skin of a couple of those middle pieces and chopping them into bite-sized pieces, I quickly realized I'd have enough to feed an army, more than enough for the three of us. So with the other half, I left the skins on and placed them cut side down in another pan to roast alongside our dinner. I'd use those pieces in a soup the next day.
The chunks of squash were mixed in with a sweet onion also cut into chunks, drizzled with olive oil, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Placed into a 350 degree oven, within about 40 minutes or less the squash was tender and fragrant. After it was out of the oven, I seasoned it again after tasting, and sprinkled some chopped fresh oregano from the garden over the mixture.
Not as sweet as she expected, said my daughter. But good. Very good. And so easy to prepare, too. I like that!
Okay, October should be full of brisk fall days begging for sweaters and soups. This week, records have been set in the 80s. Not exactly a fall soup day, but there was the squash thing I had already roasted.
So I chopped up half of a large onion and sauteed it in a little olive oil. Stirred in some minced garlic. Then I pureed the squash, along with the cooked onion and garlic, all in the food processor, adding a little bit of chicken stock to loosen it up. I then added that puree to the pot, and stirred in some chicken stock until it was the "soupy" consistency I wanted.
Seasonings? It could be the French style, with fresh or dried thyme, esp. But my tastes buds were remembering some "pumpkin" soup from the Caribbean, probably made with a calabash or huge squash, that got its savory flavoring with nutmeg.
Freshly grated nutmeg is very worthy sensory experience. A bit sharp at times, spicy, unlike what you think of as a traditional pumpkin pie spice. A favorite use of nutmeg is grating it over a creamy Painkiller, that tasty cocktail with rum and coconut milk from the British Virgin Islands. And freshly grated nutmeg takes sauteed fresh spinach to a different level.
So the recipe for Candy Roaster Soup? There's one in THE NEW BLUE RIDGE COOKBOOK from the outstanding Asheville chef, Mark Rosenstein. Or, you can just follow the steps I outlined above and wing it, tasting and seasoning as you go.
To top off my soup, literally, we grilled some shrimp wrapped in bacon (all natural, pasture-raised from Hickory Nut Gap Farm), and placed the skewers across the shrimp. All of us wound up dipping the shrimp into the soup. . . a glorious and tasty combination.
I'd say that C. maxima was worth it's weight....for $2 dollars we had a marvelous roasted veggie one night, and a terrific soup, with leftovers, the next. Not matter what it's called, what an heirloom veggie. I'll try a pie from it the next time.