What Is Cushaw Squash? Here's What You Need to Know About This Hefty Relative of the Butternut and Acorn
It's exciting when an unfamiliar fruit or vegetable appears at fall markets. Even among the kaleidoscope of late-season winter squashes, the bulbous-bottomed, crook-necked heavyweight that is the cushaw stands out, intriguing cooks who live beyond its traditional cultivation range in the Southwestern United States and in Mexico. (Those familiar with it, please bear with us: The cushaw may be your beloved winter squash but the rest of us are just catching up.) With its imposing size and large seeds, the cushaw is a beautiful and challenging fruit (yes, fruit!), and we are here to help guide you.
Our hero, the cushaw, is a winter squash (which, as a loosely defined group, are squash that are allowed to mature on the vine before being harvested, unlike thin-skinned summer squash). It is produced by an annual vine, Cucurbita argyrosperma, sometimes described as C. mixta—a synonym. Cushaw was cultivated as far back as 3,000 to 7,000 BC in Mesoamerica, making it one of the world's oldest crops, along with other squash species.
While they can be—and are—eaten immature as an early summer squash delicacy, the fruits take all season to fill out and ripen fully, and are typically harvested in early fall. They appear for sale when their rinds have thickened and they have bulked up, with rounded bottoms and meaty necks. When ripe, they weigh anywhere between five and 25 pounds. The cushaw (etymology unknown) is still not widely cultivated in the U.S. beyond the Southwest, where it is a familiar seasonal crop. Its other common names include sweet potato pumpkin and crookneck pumpkin.
Various iterations and cultivars of cushaw—with a range of colors and skin-patterns—are beginning to arrive at market as interest in heirloom vegetables and Native American foods grows. While the most recognizable form of cushaw has distinctive frosted green-and-white bands, the squashes range from tri-colored—with orange tops and green bottoms, to orange-and-white striped, to a stately and ghostly white (Halloween display, anyone?). This is the so-called Illinois squash and it claims heirloom status thanks to its seed reportedly being saved since its deployment in Abraham Lincoln's parental kitchen. Prescient seed companies are introducing the imposing winter squash to more farmers and to kitchen gardeners. For growers, one of the benefits of cushaw cultivation is its resistance to squash-stem borer, a common pest.
The interior of the squash reveals light yellow to pale orange flesh that is mildly sweet, with large, roastable seeds. To prepare the hefty cushaw for cooking, slice its neck into rounds and scoop the seeds from its bottom. The hollowed-out bottom makes a great roasting vessel, especially once filled with Thanksgiving stuffing. Carve off the skin to cook the slices in boiling water. After that, it's up to your appetite. Go for broke and layer the cooked slices in a dish with cream, sugar, and a flurry of cinnamon, then bake it in a hot oven until bubbling. Or purée the cooked cushaw with butter or walnut oil and lots of pepper and serve it as a side dish. Maple syrup never hurts, nor does a good squeeze of lemon or orange juice. To enjoy cushaw seeds as a healthy snack, rinse and clean them well before cooking in salted water for 10 minutes. Drain them and toss with oil and seasoning before roasting in a warm (325-degree) oven for 30 minutes.