Winter Squash is at its Best Right Now

Another interesting article in the November Nashua Telegraph Feast section written by Liz and Haley Barbour.

As the cold November weather rolls in, most of us stop visiting
our local farm stands.  It is easy to forget that fresh, local produce is still available during the cold months. But the largest crop of winter called, appropriately, winter squash is planted in the spring, grows in the summer, and is at its freshest in October, November
and December.  Winter squash is known for being low in fat and high in fiber, potassium, antioxidants, and iron, and the bright orange-fleshed squashes are excellent sources of beta carotene.

Winter squash is a sub-division of the cucurbitaceae, or squash family. Pumpkins and summer squash are close relatives, as are melons and cucumbers.  However, winter squash is different in that it stops ripening after being picked from the vine, unlike summer squash that continues to mature after picking. And, the thick skin of winter squash allows it to be stored for up to six months after it is harvested.

Winter squash has been a dietary staple for many years. The Native Americans revered squash and considered it one of “The Three Sisters”, a group of basic crops that also included beans and corn.  With these three crops, the natives practiced “companion planting”, or the concept of planting certain plants close together to enhance growth. Squash leaves prevented weeds and shaded the ground for the growth of the corn and beans. Corn stalks provided something sturdy for the bean plants to climb up, as well as providing shade for the squash plants. The squash was important to the natives’ health because it provided potassium, omega 3’s, and beta carotene while the corn provided carbohydrates and the beans provided protein. Native Americans grew all of their own crops, but that is not an option for all of us nowadays. Instead, we venture to grocery stores, farm stands, and farmer’s markets to find winter squash.

When shopping for winter squash, choose a firm, blemish-free squash that is heavy for its size. You will most likely find the following types: butternut, acorn, buttercup, spaghetti, Terk’s Turban, and Hubbard. Don’t be afraid to try all the different varieties because they all taste delicious. The bright orange butternut squash is the most popular variety. The acorn and buttercup varieties are dark green on the outside, but sometimes appear bronze
in color. Spaghetti squash is not as sweet as the others. It is fibrous and stringy on the inside and makes the perfect substitute for pasta. The orange turban squash also lacks sweetness and has a moister flesh. Lastly, Hubbard squash is oddly shaped and requires more time to cook. A commonality between all seven types is their thick outer shell. Because of this, buying “organic” is not necessarily a priority with winter squash because pesticides cannot penetrate through the rind.

After purchasing your winter squash, it is necessary to store it correctly. The thinner skinned varieties – acorn, butternut, delicata, and spaghetti – can be stored up to 3 months, while the thicker skinned varieties can be stored for 6 months.  Store all whole squashes in a cool, dry place (50-60˚F). After being cut, squash should be wrapped and stored in the refrigerator and cooked within a few days.

With so many varieties of winter squash, it is only a matter of learning some basic
preparations for this healthy, local harvest.  Thin-skinned varieties can be peeled with a vegetable peeler.  Easier still, place the whole squash in the microwave for 5 minutes, use a large chef’s knife to cut it in half, then roast cut side down in a 400˚ oven until the squash can be pierced with a fork, 30 minutes or longer. For an Asian taste, steam cubes
of peeled butternut squash in a saucepan with 1” of water and drain. Then, dress with soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh chopped ginger, garlic, and scallions. Consider adding cubes of peeled winter squash to your favorite vegetable soup recipe.

Winter squash can also be used as a serving dish. Cut an unpeeled acorn squash in
half, remove the seeds and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or until tender.  Then fill each half with chili to use as an edible bowl.

For desserts, if you prefer a classic New England flavor, steam squash until soft, then mash or puree and top with butter and maple syrup.  This makes a great dessert when served with vanilla ice cream. Another option is replace half the apples in a pie or crisp with
small cubes of peeled sugar pumpkin or delicata squash.  Or consider adding a healthy boost to banana bread by replacing half the bananas with cooked squash.

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