Winter squash: a great addition to your fall menu

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As you walk into any grocery store this time of year, you are usually greeted with a beautiful display of winter squash of all colors and shapes: yellow, orange, striped, round, oval, large and small. They make an interesting and seasonal display, but are also a delicious addition to the menu.

Winter squash is a warm-season vegetable that can be grown in most of the country. It differs from summer squash in that it is harvested and eaten in the mature fruit stage, when the seeds within have matured fully and the skin has hardened into a tough rind. When ripened to this stage, fruits of most varieties can be stored for use throughout the winter.

The squash family (cucurbitaceae) includes pumpkins, summer squash and winter squash and are really gourds. There are many varieties with a wide range of flavors and textures. Their tough outer shells can be smooth or bumpy, thin or thick and rock hard with a wide array of colors. The most popular winter squash includes acorn, buttercup, butternut, Calabaza, delicate, Hubbard, spaghetti, sweet dumpling and Terk’s Turban. There are many more, but this section will be limited to the above-mentioned varieties.

Winter squash is planted in the spring, grows all summer and is always harvested at the mature stage in early autumn before the first frost. Immature winter squash lacks flavor, so wait until the rind is hard. Winter squash is harvested with 2 inches of stem remaining as a stem cut too short is like an open wound, which will cause early decay.

For storage, harvest sturdy, heavy squashes with fairly glossy skin that is unblemished by soft spots, cuts, breaks or uncharacteristic discoloration. Most winter squash benefits from a curing stage; the exceptions are acorn, sweet dumpling and delicate. Curing is simply holding the squash at room temperature (about 70 degrees) for 10 to 20 days.

After curing, transfer to a cool (45 to 50 degrees), dry place such as the basement or garage for long term storage but be careful to not allow them to freeze. The large, hard-rind winter squash can be stored up to six months under these conditions. Warmer temperatures simply mean shorter storage time. The smaller acorn and butternut do not store as well, only up to three months. Store cut pieces of winter squash in the refrigerator, but refrigeration is too humid for whole squash and they will deteriorate quickly.

Nutritional value and health benefits

Winter squash is a tasty source of complex carbohydrate (natural sugar and starch) and fiber. Fiber absorbs water and becomes bulky in the stomach. Research suggests that this soluble fiber plays an important role in reducing the incidence of colon cancer.

Winter squash is also a source of potassium, niacin, iron and beta carotene. The orange-fleshed squash is also an excellent source of beta carotene and as a general rule, the deeper the orange color, the higher the beta carotene content. Beta carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body which is essential for healthy skin, vision, bone development and maintenance as well as many other functions. The nutrient content of winter squash varies depending on the variety. The following information is a summary of all varieties, cooked, baked and cubed.

One cup cooked, cubed squash contains:

Calories: 79.95.

Protein: 1.82 grams.

Carbohydrates: 17.94 grams.

Dietary fiber: 5.74 grams.

Calcium: 28.7 mg.

Iron: .67 mg.

Potassium: 895.85 mg.

Folate: 57.4 mcg.

Vitamin A: 7,291.85.

Preparation and serving

Peeling winter squash can be a challenge to the novice. The thin-skinned varieties (acorn, butternut, delicata and sweet dumpling) can be peeled with a paring knife or vegetable peeler.

Most recipes using these varieties call for cutting the squash in half. Position the squash on a cutting board, stem end facing you. Place the blade of a heavy chef’s knife horizontally along the length of the squash. With a hammer or mallet, repeatedly hit the back of the blade near the handle to drive it into the squash until it breaks in half. Place the larger varieties (Hubbard and Turk’s Turban) on newspaper and use a sharp cleaver to split the hard-rind open. Or use the chef’s knife method described above. Once you have a slit cut, bang on a hard surface and pull apart. Pieces are easier to peel. With a spoon, scoop out the seeds and strings and discard, or set aside if you plan to roast the seeds.

To cook winter squash, place unpeeled pieces cut sides down on a shallow baking dish and bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes or longer. Check for doneness by piercing with a fork or skewer. When tender, remove from the oven and allow the pieces to cool. Spoon out the soft flesh and mash with a fork or process in a blender or food processor. Peeled pieces can be cut into cubes and boiled until tender. Use with any recipe calling for cooked mashed or pureed squash. Or microwave the squash pieces on high for 15 minutes or longer.

Small acorn squash and spaghetti squash can be pierced in several places with a long-tined fork or metal skewer and baked whole. Piercing prevents the shell from bursting during cooking. Place the squash on a baking dish and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at 325 degrees. Test for doneness by squeezing the shell. When it gives a bit with pressure, it is done.

Home preservation

Store whole winter squash in an area where temperatures range from 45 to 50 degrees for three to six months. At room temperature, reduce storage time to one and a half to three months depending on variety. See the selection and storage information above.

Cooked squash freezes well. Pack into freezer containers or freezer bags leaving one-half inch head space and freeze for up to one year. Canning is not recommended unless the squash is cut into cubes.

Mashed squash is too dense and heat penetration is uneven. Because spaghetti squash does not stay cubed on heating, it should be frozen instead of canned. For all other varieties, follow the procedure and processing times outlined in canning pumpkin.

Recipes

Herbs and spices used to enhance the flavor of winter squash include garlic, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, basil, parsley and a pinch of ground cloves. Sweeten squash pulp with maple syrup, honey, brown sugar or orange juice concentrate.

Squash bread

Equally delicious for breakfast, snack or as a light dessert, this honey-sweetened loaf can be spread with low-fat cream cheese or whipped butter. To warm: Wrap thick slices in a paper towel and microwave for 15 to 20 seconds on high.

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup honey

1 egg plus 1 egg white

1 1/4 cup pureed cooked winter squash

On a plate, sift together first six ingredients. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix oil, sugar and honey together until light and fluffy.

Beat in egg and egg white. Add squash puree and beat until smooth.

Fold in dry ingredients. Turn into a greased 9×5 inch loaf pan.

Bake until golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about one hour. Remove from the oven, let stand in pan 10 minutes. Turn out onto a wire cooling rack or cake plate to cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Variation:

Squash bread with nut topping

2 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

1/2 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts

powdered sugar for dusting (optional)

After Step 4, pour melted butter over the top and sprinkle with chopped nuts. Bake as directed above. Cool and dust with powdered sugar.

Spaghetti squash with parmesan cheese

One 4- to 5-pound spaghetti squash

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cloves minced garlic

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon white pepper (optional)

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil or parsley

Additional Parmesan cheese for passing

Pierce squash in several places with a long-tined fork or metal skewer. Place on baking pan and bake 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Using potholders, squeeze squash to test for doneness. It is ready when it gives slightly under pressure. Remove and cool.

Heat a saucepan over heat, pour in olive oil. Add garlic and cook until tender, but not browned, for about 5 minutes.

When squash is cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds and stringy portions. Using a fork, pull pulp from the shell in long strands and add them to the warm garlic oil.

Toss squash strands gently with pepper, salt and cheese. Pour into a serving bowl and garnish with basil or parsley. Serve immediately. Pass additional cheese at the table. Serves six.

Variations:

Strains of cooked spaghetti squash can be tossed with your favorite marinara sauce, mushroom sauce or pesto. The empty shell halves are nice to use as a serving bowl.

The above information was taken from an article written by University of Illinois Extension.