Deciding what food to prepare everyday can be a daunting task in many families. With different palates to please, and limited time to plan and prepare, cooking may become less than enjoyable. We often return to the same old “tried and true” recipes to save time and avoid meal-time battles. All too often, however, this raises the inevitable chorus of: “We’re eating this again?” If your family meals need a shake up, turn to autumn harvest vegetables for a quick-fix solution to meal time boredom.
Winter squash are now readily available at your local grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Winter squash are versatile and economical – one squash can go a long way – and can be easily incorporated into sweet or savory main dishes, sides, and desserts.
Distinguished by their hard, thick, inedible rinds, winter squash have a long storage period of one to six months, making them available right through the winter. Hundreds of varieties exist, but the most widely available winter squash include:
- Acorn squash: Recognized by its acorn shape and harvest green color with orange patches. This squash has a sweet, nutty and slightly peppery taste.
- Butternut squash: Shaped like a large pear, butternut squash has a light peach colored rind with deep orange flesh. It has a sweet flavor.
- Hubbard squash: Plump in the middle and slightly tapered at the neck, this squash’s bumpy skin varies in color from dark green to light blue to orange. It is less sweet than other varieties of squash.
- Spaghetti: This large yellow squash has a crisp light colored flesh that, when cooked, pulls apart in strands resembling spaghetti. It has a slightly nutty flavor. Although spaghetti squash does not keep as long as other varieties, it’s gaining in popularity.
- Pumpkin: Pumpkins have a bright orange rind and range from very large sizes, perfect for carving jack-o-lanterns, to small sugar pumpkins. They have an orange flesh with a sweet, mild flavor.
Winter squash are a healthy food choice because they are packed full of nutrients. Squash are an excellent source of beta-carotene and are a very good source of vitamin C, B1, B5, B6, folic acid, potassium, niacin and dietary fiber.
Our bodies use beta-carotene to make Vitamin A, an important nutrient for vision, immune function, and skin and bone health. Beta-carotene is found in all brightly colored fruit and vegetables; the brighter the color, the richer the beta-carotene level. Beta-carotene vegetables also appear to offer a protective effect against cancer, heart disease and type 2 Diabetes.
Selecting and Storing
When selecting winter squash, look for a hard, tough rind with the stem attached which reduces moisture loss. A soft rind means the squash is not ripe and lacks flavor. Choose winter squash that are heavy for their size and have a dull, not glossy, rind. Cuts, punctures, and depressed or moldy spots are signs of decay. Squash can be stored for months if placed in a cool dry place, ideally between 50-60 degrees F. Once cut, however, refrigerated winter squash will keep for only one or two days. Cooked squash keeps from three to five days if refrigerated.
Winter squash should be washed before cutting, under cold running water and scrubbed with a vegetable brush to remove any debris. If it has been waxed or not organically grown, it is beneficial to soak the squash first in cold water with a mild solution of additive-free soap or produce wash. Use a heavy chef’s knife, or a cleaver, to split squash and scoop out any seeds and fibrous material in the cavity. Depending on the recipe, you can use winter squash peeled or unpeeled. To peel uncooked squash, use a sharp paring knife. Cooked squash peels very easily.
Winter squash can be baked, boiled, steamed, roasted or sautéed. Here are some quick and easy ways to include squash in your meals:
- Roasted winter squash: Cut acorn squash in half and drizzle inside with olive oil, salt, pepper and any other spices you desire, for example: thyme, cumin, sage, or garlic. Place in a chemical-free roasting pan and bake at 400 F until the skin is soft and the flesh is tender. Approximate cooking time 40-45 minutes.
- Baked Pumpkin, Hubbard or Butternut squash: Cut squash into large chunks and coat with a little olive oil. Season according to taste and place in a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper to prevent sticking. Bake at 400 F until soft. Turn frequently while baking. Remove skins and serve over brown rice for a nutrient packed side dish. Approximate cooking time 30-40 minutes.
- Mashed squash: Peeled pumpkin, acorn, or butternut squash can be boiled until soft. Drain well and drizzle with olive oil, butter, or maple syrup and season as desired with cinnamon, salt, cumin, and garlic. Mash with a potato masher. Approximate cooking time 7- 12 minutes.
- Steamed squash: Steam cubes of peeled winter squash for five minutes, then add a drizzle of olive oil or tamari. Spice according to taste with salt, pepper, ginger, and garlic.
- Sautéed squash: Grate squash and sauté with a little water or vegetable broth. Cook until crunchy. Approximately 8-15 minutes. For a complete meal, add a handful of your favorite vegetables while sautéing such as green beans, broccoli or carrots. You can also top with beans or cooked chicken.
Take advantage of this season’s bounty and try winter squash. Winter squash is tasty, nutritious, and a definite crowd-pleaser. It’s sure to make meal planning a little easier.
Image: Suzie’s Farm
Murray, Michael N.D. Encyclopedia of Healing Foods . New York: Atria Books, 2005.
Murray, Michael N.D. Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements . New York: Three Rivers Press, 1996.
Beck, Leslie R.D. Foods That Fight Disease . Toronto: Penguin Group, 2008.
The PA Nutrition Education Network. The Month of October: Winter Squash. Panen.psu.edu.