With colder weather just about here (and the holiday season already looming), people naturally begin to think more and more about cooking. We see article after article, advertisement after advertisement, talking about the joy of the feast, from preparation to table setting to serving.
One of the best things about colder weather is winter squash, which allows us to feast as Mother Nature intended: sweetly and in a satisfying way.
Winter squash is the fruit of an annual plant belonging to the same family as melon and cucumber and includes a staggering array of choices. Cultivated squash as we know it is descendent from wild squash, believed to have originated in a Central American region between Mexico and Guatemala, later spreading to North and South America.
Having been consumed for over 10,000 years, squash was originally more prized for its seeds, as primitive wild squash was less fleshy. Over the years, cultivation has led to the squash we know and love today, with its seeds housed in succulent, moist, sensually sweet flesh. Most varieties of squash are divided into summer and winter squash. Summer squash is delicate and highly perishable, while winter squash is hearty and sweet… and my personal favorite.
Winter squash are harvested when fully ripe. They vary in shape, size and color, but have in common a denser, much sweeter flesh that turns delightfully creamy when cooked. Like melon, winter squash has an inner cavity with edible seeds, nutrient-dense treats in their own right. Many people think that the hard outer skin of winter squash is inedible, but in fact, can be enjoyed with few exceptions. And since many delicate surface nutrients reside in the skin, you may want to reconsider peeling them. Think of the work you’ll save!
With many varieties already available-and continually expanding, winter squash can be enjoyed all season, with no risk of boredom. Here are some of the more common varieties:
Butternut (pear-shaped, beige squash, with rich orange flesh)
Buttercup (round deep green-skinned squash with bright orange, intensely sweet flesh)
Turban squash (green, with colored stripes or speckles on the skin, with a pale golden flesh that is drier than most, but very sweet, with a hint of hazelnut-like flavor)
Hubbard (rough, tough outer skin, either orange or blue-green, that is not really edible, with bright orange flesh; can be quite large)
Acorn (wide-ribbed squash, with a tough skin that is very difficult to digest, so I recommend peeling, pale orange flesh that is not overly sweet; ideal for stuffing)
Pumpkin (hard outer skin and fibrous orange flesh, lends itself more to jack-o-lanterns than cooking, not all that sweet, but when combined with other winter squash can be quite brilliant; also great for stuffing)
Kabocha or Hokkaido (bright orange skin and flesh, intensely sweet and creamy when cooked; great for stuffing)
When choosing winter squash, look for undamaged, slightly glossy skin. Look for medium size, as overly large squash can be fibrous and overly small ones may lack flavor. They will keep in a cool, dry place for several weeks to months, depending on the variety of squash you choose.
Once you have cut a squash, if you will not be using it all at once, remove all the seeds, even from the unused portion. Wrap it in plastic and store it in the refrigerator. It will keep for 1-2 weeks. If you leave the seeds in the unused portion, the squash will sour quickly.
Rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber, carotenoids, potassium, vitamin A and C, folic acid and pantothenic acid, squash is not only delicious, but an incredible source of fuel.