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Squash, winter
Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation


Why Eat It

In contrast to the tender young summer squashes, the many varieties of winter squash are all harvested at a mature stage, when their shells and usually their seeds have grown hard and inedible. Because of these protective shells, winter squashes (all members of the gourd family) have a much longer storage life than their summer counterparts--some can keep for three months at home, longer in a commercial facility. Harvested in the fall, for example, they can be stored throughout the winter in a cool, dry place. However, winter squashes are no longer bound to a particular season. Today, the term simply refers to hard-shelled varieties that keep well (as compared to summer squashes, such as zucchini, that do not).

The yellow or orange flesh of winter squashes is darker than that of summer varieties, and it is more nutritious, richer in complex carbohydrates and, in many cases, beta-carotene. Some types--such as Hubbard and butternut--contain enough beta-carotene to supply almost 150% of the Daily Value for vitamin A in 1 cup of cooked squash.

Winter squashes are almost always cooked, but only the flesh is eaten--the seeds, which are high in protein and fat, are usually discarded (although some, such as pumpkin seeds, can be eaten if toasted and hulled).

Varieties

Winter squashes vary greatly in size--from small acorn squashes to Hubbards, weighing 15 pounds or more, and pumpkins that can reach 200 pounds. They also exhibit a greater array of flavors and textures than summer squashes. Still, most varieties can be substituted for one another in recipes, even in pumpkin pie. The only exception is spaghetti squash, with its uniquely textured flesh. Hundreds of varieties of winter squash are grown, though many are sold only at farm stands or specialty greengrocers. The three most popular winter squashes are acorn, butternut and Hubbard; the others listed below are less common varieties that are becoming more widely available.

Acorn: This ridged, acorn-shaped squash with the dark green skin may be the best known of the winter squashes, although it doesn't provide quite as much beta-carotene as other orange-fleshed squash. For more information, see Acorn squash.

Banana: This large cylindrical squash (one type weighs up to 30 pounds) has thick skin, which ranges in color from pale yellow to ivory, and a finely textured orange flesh.

Buttercup: So named because of its turbanlike cap at the blossom end (opposite the stem end), buttercup has a squat shape. Its dark green skin is punctuated with lighter green stripes. The orange flesh is sweet but somewhat dry.

Butternut: The orange flesh of this tan, smooth-skinned squash provides a substantial amount of beta-carotene. For more information, see Butternut squash.

Calabaza: Generally, this large squash is bright orange, but it can be found with green, yellow, or cream-colored skin. Sweet and moist when cooked, it's most often sold in portions.

Delicata: Also called Bohemian squash, the 1- to 2-pound oblong delicata has cream-colored skin with stripes that vary in color from green to orange. Its flesh is yellow and sweet.

Golden Nugget: This orange-skinned, mildly sweet-tasting squash resembles a miniature pumpkin. With only enough flesh for one serving, it tastes best when baked whole or in halves, like acorn squash.

Hubbard: Hubbards are an old, extensive group of squashes that are usually plump in the middle and more tapered at the neck. Their bumpy skin varies in color from dark green to light blue to orange. Over the years, the popularity of Hubbards has diminished because of their size--the smallest weigh 5 pounds, the largest about 15 pounds. In the supermarket, they may be sold precut.

Spaghetti: Also called vegetable spaghetti, this oval-shaped yellow squash is a relative newcomer and a novel one: When cooked, its flesh forms spaghettilike strands. For more information, see Spaghetti squash.

Sweet Dumpling: Like the Golden Nugget, this small squash serves only one person, and can be cooked whole. The skin is light colored, usually with dark green stripes.

Turban: An orange base and bright stripes in several colors distinguish this turban-shaped squash, which is capped with a knob similar to that on buttercup squash. It is valued more for its use as a table decoration than for its taste.

Pumpkin: See Pumpkin.

Availability

Some winter squashes, particularly acorn, are in good supply year-round. But most are at their peak beginning in late summer and continuing on throughout the fall and winter; they become scarce in spring.

Shopping

The size you buy will depend on your needs. There is no such thing as an "overgrown" winter squash; and the longer the squash grows, the sweeter it will be. However, after picking, squash may be damaged by poor storage. Clues to good quality are a smooth, dry rind, free of cracks or soft spots. Moreover, the rind should be dull; a shiny rind indicates that the squash was picked too early, and will not have the full sweetness of a mature specimen.

Deep color is also a sign of a good winter squash. Butternut squash should be uniformly tan, with no tinge of green; pumpkin should have a rich orange color. A winter squash should feel heavy for its size. If possible, choose squash with their stems attached, as these are also indicators of quality: The stems should be rounded and dry, not collapsed, blackened, or moist.

Some very large squash, such as calabaza, banana, or Hubbard, are sold cut into quarters or chunks and wrapped in plastic. When buying cut squash, look for good interior color and fine-grained flesh.

Storage

Winter squash is one of the best-keeping vegetables. Uncut squash should keep for three months or longer in a cool, dry place. Storage below 50°F (as in the refrigerator) will cause squash to deteriorate more quickly, but refrigerator storage is acceptable for a week or two. Cut squash will stay for up to a week if tightly wrapped and refrigerated.

Preparation

Rinse off any dirt before using. The hard shell of some types of winter squash can prove challenging to cut: Use a heavy chef's knife or a cleaver, especially for larger squash. First, make a shallow cut in the skin to use as a guide to prevent the knife blade from slipping. Then place the blade in the cut and tap the base of the knife (near the handle) with your fist (or, if necessary, with a mallet or rolling pin) until the squash is cut through. Scoop out the seeds and fibers and cut the squash into smaller chunks, if desired. Small, very hard-shelled squash, such as Golden Nugget, may be impossible to split before cooking; bake or steam them whole.

If peeled chunks of squash are required, cut the squash into pieces, then peel them with a sturdy, sharp paring knife. Very hard-shelled squash is much easier to peel after cooking.

Baking: This method brings out the sweetness in winter squash, caramelizing some of its sugars--and best conserves its beta-carotene content. Bake halved squash and serve plain, or bake, then fill with a stuffing and return to the oven until the stuffing is heated through (10 to 15 minutes). You can also bake squash halves, then scoop out and mash the flesh with your favorite seasonings; spoon the mashed squash back into the shells (sprinkle with grated cheese, breadcrumbs, chopped nuts, or sesame seeds, if desired) and return to the oven until heated through.

To bake, halve small squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and strings (squash can also be seeded after baking). Cut large squash into serving-sized pieces. Place the squash, cut-side down, in a foil-lined baking pan (its sugary juices may burn onto the pan). Pour about 1/4" of water into the pan, cover with foil, and bake in a 350°F to 400°F oven until the squash is tender when pierced with a knife or toothpick. Halfway through baking, the squash halves (or pieces) may be turned, cut-side up, brushed with a little melted butter or oil, and sprinkled with brown sugar and spices. Cooking times: for squash halves, 40 to 45 minutes; for cut-up squash, 15 to 25 minutes.

Boiling: Although this method is faster than steaming, boiling water will dilute the flavor of the squash slightly. Place peeled squash pieces in a small amount of boiling water and cook until tender. Drain well. Cooking times: 5 minutes.

Microwaving: Arrange squash halves, cut-side up, in a shallow microwavable dish, cover, and cook until tender, rotating the dish halfway through the cooking time. Or, place large chunks of any winter squash in a shallow microwavable dish, cover, and cook until tender. Let stand for 5 minutes after cooking. Cooking time: for squash halves, 7 to 10 minutes; for chunks, 8 minutes.

Sauteing: Grated or peeled, diced squash can be sauteed in broth, or in a combination of broth and oil. Use a nonstick skillet, if possible. Grated squash is best if it is cooked just to the point where it is still slightly crunchy. Cooking time: 8 to 15 minutes.

Steaming: Place seeded squash halves, cut-side down, in a vegetable steamer and cook over boiling water until tender. Or, cook peeled chunks or slices of squash in the steamer. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.


Date Published: 04/21/2005
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