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Ingredient Challenge: Kabocha Squash

Image of Chef Robert Danhi
The vibrant rust colors of fall leaves may signal the last act of the summer fruit season, but the change in weather also brings on a cornucopia of varietal hard squashes that will take over grocery displays for the next few months in every imaginable size, color and shape.
Image of Kabocha Squash
Befitting this change in the seasonal menu, as well as his expertise in Southeast Asian cooking, Chef Robert Danhi was given Kabocha Squash as his ingredient challenge.

Pumpkin and Pork with Scallions is an everyday dish of Thailand that has a true elegance of simplicity about it. A few commonplace ingredients create a pleasantly sweet-salty seesaw between the Kabocha squash and the sauce that thoroughly entertains the palate with each bite. The taste and texture of Kabocha (pronounced kah-bow-cha) is likened to that of a sweet potato crossed with a pumpkin. While Kabocha squash is available year-round, the crop harvested in the late summer and early fall is the most flavorful.

The size and density of this squash variety varies greatly. Be aware that, once the seeds are scooped out of a Kabocha’s medium large cavity and its thin (edible) skin is peeled away for this particular recipe, there may not be a whole lot of useable squash left to work with; so buy a few extra just to be on the safe side. Besides, after trying Chef Robert’s dish, you will no doubt want to experiment preparing this tasty ingredient in other ways!

The upside of the squash’s narrow, rind-like interior is that it makes a perfect stir-fry component. In 8-10 minutes the squash will cook tender as it absorbs the flavors of the rest of the ingredients in the recipe. Be careful not to overcook this squash as it can turn mushy. If you have the time, follow Chef Robert’s suggestion to marinate the pork in the oyster sauce overnight in the refrigerator to achieve the most robust fusion of flavors and then bring it back to room temperature before cooking.

Interestingly, while Kabocha is a very commonplace item in Japan, it has only been available in this country for about 20 years and its increasing popularity here came about by unintentional happenstance. It seems that an enterprising California grower first planted this unique squash to provide Japan with a steady supply to augment that country’s limited production due to a scarcity of agricultural land. The venture was quite successful, so much so that the grower expanded his operation with more fields in Mexico. However, since the Japanese prefer only extra large squashes, the smaller ones were shipped into the Los Angeles Wholesale Terminal Market in hopes of recouping production costs. The rest, as the saying goes, is history! Today, that same grower dedicates approximately 15% of his more than 100-ton annual crop to the American marketplace.

Chef Robert Danhi, culinary traveler and author, is a chef on a mission to demystify the foods of Southeast Asian so that the home cook and professional chef alike can recreate the authentic flavors of this very food-centric part of the world in their own kitchens. Chef Robert’s first book, Southeast Asian Flavors – Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, takes the reader on a beautifully photographed tour of the region’s traditional cuisines through personal commentary and recipes discovered along the way. Taking this demystification focus one step further, this industrious chef is working on a second cookbook, Easy Thai Cooking (Tuttle - Nov. 2011), that will contain recipes that have the genuine flavors of Thailand but rely on store-bought condiments that are readily available for the home chef. This is how many in modern Thailand cook, so Chef Robert is simply demonstrating authentic Thai cooking as it exists in today’s faster paced society.

Chef Robert does not rely on only the print media to bring Southeast Asian flavors into the homes and restaurants of this country. In a fascinating video, produced by his own food media company, Chef Danhi takes his passion beyond the kitchens and into the backyards of America, demonstrating how to smoke salmon and shrimp with a unique aroma from tea packets on the barbeque. One warning before watching the video link provided in this article: It would be wise to have your barby prepared and ready to fire. In presenting the two recipes, it is obvious that the chef even sparked his own appetite during shooting of the video. If the truth be known, this writer was inspired to try the chef’s smoked salmon dish within a few hours of viewing this video. So get the coals ready and then take a look at the video.

Chef Robert Danhi is a multi-media chef who keeps one spatula in the ancient culinary traditions of his favorite part of the world, while his thumbs are poised to communicate with those who want to learn more about the world of Southeast Asian cuisines. To that end, Chef Robert welcomes the reader to contact him directly through his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Pumpkin and Pork with Scallions
Makes 4 to 6 servings as part of a multi-dish meal
Image of Pumpkin and Pork with Scallions
¼ lb. Pork shoulder, leg or loin, sliced into pieces about 1/8” thick
2 Tbsp. Oyster sauce
1 Tbsp. Vegetable oil
1 clove fresh Organic Garlic, minced (sub. Melissa’s Minced Garlic)
1 lb. (usable) Kabocha squash, peeled and cut into small pieces, ¼” inch thick
1½ cups Water
1 Tbsp. Granulated sugar
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 cup organic Scallions, greens only, 1 to 1 ½” lengths
2 cups Steamed Rice (cooked)

Preparation Note:
In Thailand some cooks prefer to peel only the outer green coating of the Kabocha, leaving small sections of the dark skinned under-layer remaining. It looks quite attractive and the flavor is a bit earthier.
  1. Combine pork with oyster sauce and marinate 30 minutes (or overnight).
  2. Heat oil over a high flame in hot wok; stir-fry pork and garlic until pork loses raw appearance (about 3 minutes). Add pumpkin, water, sugar, and salt; mix well. Lower heat and cook gently, stirring often, until pumpkin is tender (about 10 minutes). This type of squash stays firm for a while, and then rapidly softens and breaks apart, so cook it less than you think is necessary; it will continue to cook even after the heat is off.
  3. Gently mix, taste, and adjust seasoning as needed. Try to achieve a slightly salty sauce with a touch of natural sweetness from the pumpkin.
  4. Add scallions at the last moment; cook for only about 10 seconds until they turn bright green. If the scallions are cooked too long, they lose their desirable pungent flavor and color.
  5. Serve with steamed rice.
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