To the uninitiated, the various winter squashes can cause a person to scratch her head and wonder “What in the world do you do with that?” Those odd-shaped, odd-colored, hard-as-a-rock orbs found in the produce aisle at this time of year are actually culinary gems and garden superstars.
Winter squash is amazingly versatile in the kitchen, and its sheer abundance in the garden invites endless experimentation for the adventurous cook. From soups and side dishes to cakes and breads, squash lends itself to all of them, so there’s never a reason for squash of any kind to go to waste.
Like corn, early squash was quite different than the kind we consume today. Cultivated by Native Americans, squash was prized for its seeds since it didn’t have much flesh — the little flesh it did have was bitter and unpalatable. As it continued to be cultivated and introduced throughout the New World, varieties were developed to have sweet-tasting flesh — and an abundance of it. Christopher Columbus brought squash back to Europe, and it continued to make its way into the world via Spanish and Portuguese explorers.
Winter squash includes, but is not limited to, Cucurbita pepo (acorn, delicata, dumpling and spaghetti); Cucurbita moschata (butternut); Cucurbita maxima (kabocha, Hubbard and buttercup); and pumpkins of all kinds are included, too. Loaded with carotenoids and other antioxidants, winter squash truly is a superfood. Winter squash can be incorporated into endless dishes to add bulk, flavor and moistening properties; it’s so versatile that it can be considered a year-round staple
Guidelines for cooking
The flavor of winter squash is best brought out by the high heat of roasting or sautéing, but it can be steamed, too. Here are some tips for preparation:
Roast: Heat the oven to 400 F. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Place the squash cut side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and brush the skin with a thin layer of olive oil. Begin checking for doneness after 30 minutes. Bake up to 1 hour.
Sauté: More labor intensive than roasting, slice the squash into manageable pieces, then peel it by cutting away large sections of rind with a sharp knife.
Cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes, toss with olive oil or melted butter, and sauté over medium-high heat for 20 minutes, or until fork-tender.
Steam: Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Put 1/2 inch of water in a large saucepan or stockpot, and add the squash, cut side up.
Cover and heat on medium-high until tender, replenishing water if needed.
Once the squash has been cooked tender, scoop the flesh from the shell (if baked or steamed), and purée in a blender or food processor until smooth.
Putting it up
Winter squash has the added benefit of being able to store for up to six months, depending on the variety and storage conditions. Pick winter squash and pumpkins when they are fully ripe, with hard rinds and vibrant color. Leave at least 2 inches of stem on the squash; otherwise it may rot in storage. Store winter squash in a dark place where it will not be exposed to extreme heat or extreme cold; the ideal storage temperature is 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (about 10 to 15 Celsius). To freeze winter squash, peel and cut into cubes; blanch for 3 minutes, and store in zip-top freezer bags.
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Interested in finding out more about winter squash? Check out Wonderful Heirloom Winter Squash.
More ways to eat winter squash
A few more ideas for delicious ways to serve winter squash:
1. Slice an acorn (or other smallish winter squash) in half, score the flesh and brush with olive oil and maple syrup. Season with ancho chile powder or other spices, and grill, cut side down, over low heat until the flesh is soft and tender with pleasing grill marks.
2. Mix roasted and puréed winter squash — mashed potato style — with butter, half and half, cream cheese or shredded sharp cheddar, cooked crumbled bacon, and your choice of chopped herbs (tarragon, basil, thyme), and season with salt and pepper.
3. Steam cubes of winter squash, then toss with olive oil; brown in a skillet, then drizzle with soy sauce and top with fresh ginger and toasted pumpkin seeds
Karen K. Will is editor of Heirloom Gardener magazine, and co-author, along with Editor-in-Chief Oscar H. Will III, of Plowing With Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions (New Society Publishers, 2013).