The squash family includes pumpkins, summer squash and winter squash — all considered edible gourds. The word “squash” is derived from the Native American askutasquash meaning “food eaten raw.” The many varieties vary widely in flavor and texture. Winter squash looks very different from summer squash. They have tough outer shells. The shells can be smooth or bumpy, thin or thick, and some of them are so hard that you have to drop them on the garage floor to break them open. The most popular winter squash varieties include:
A smaller, acorn-shaped squash with dark green skin, acorn squash has deep furrows and yellow-orange flesh. It is about 6 inches around and weighs 1-2 pounds. Baking is an excellent way to bring out the sweet, nutty flavors of this tender fleshed squash.
Also known as turban squash due to its “wrapped” layers, buttercup squash is usually a dark green shell with orange, mealy flesh. This stocky squash is 6-8 inches in diameter and averages 2-4 pounds. Its shortcoming is that it tends to be a bit dry. Baking or steaming can solve this problem. The dry flesh becomes smooth and tastes similar to a mixture of honey, roasted chestnuts and sweet potato. Even more than baking, steaming softens the flesh and creates a thick puree that is great for pies.
A long, pear-shaped squash with tan skin and orange, sweet flesh; butternut squash is the most popular variety. It averages about 2-4 pounds and is popular because of its meaty yet moderately sweet golden orange flesh. Because of its thin skin, this squash can easily be skinned with a vegetable peeper, which makes it easy to cut and prepare. Baking enhances its sweet, moist and nutty flavors.
A golden, green or baby blue squash notable for its bumpy, thick skin, Hubbard squash is tear-shaped, comes in several varieties and can range in weight from 5-50 pounds. Because of its size, its popularity has decreased over the years, however, precut portions can be found in markets. Green Hubbards are thick, sweet and dry. Golden Hubbards, a smaller squash than the green or blue, are fairly sweet but have a bitter aftertaste.
A yellow-skinned squash whose flesh forms translucent spaghetti like strands when cooked, oval-shaped spaghetti squash is also called the vegetable spaghetti. It averages 9 inches in length and may weigh 2-3 pounds. When cooked, the crisp, tender flesh falls apart, making spaghetti-like strands that have a lightly sweet and fresh taste. Keep in mind, the bigger the vegetable, the thicker the strands.
A solid round squash, formerly known as the vegetable gourd, sweet dumpling squash is the perfect serving size for one. It is about the size of an apple and weighs up to 1 pound. The skin is a warm cream color striped with ivy green, and it changes to butter color and orange during storage. The skin is relatively tender and can be eaten. The pale-yellow flesh is smooth, fine and dry as a potato and produces a rich, starchy, light-to-mild sweetness with a slight corn flavor.
Winter squash is planted in the spring and grows all summer to be harvested at the mature stage in early autumn, hopefully before the first frost. If the squash is not mature it lacks flavor, so wait until the rind is hard to harvest. It is best to cut winter squash with about two inches of stem remaining. If you cut the stem too short it is like an open wound and will cause the squash to decay early. The hard shell of winter squash includes a thick, inedible skin and the hollow seed cavity has fully developed seeds. The thick shell allows it to be stored for several months.
California leads the nation in total squash production followed by Florida, Michigan and Georgia.
Store whole winter squash for three to six months in an area where temperatures range from 45-50 degrees. Squash can be baked, boiled, microwaved, sauteed or steamed. It can be substituted for pumpkin to use in a pie, as most people cannot tell the difference. Many cooks actually prefer winter squash to pumpkin because it makes a nonfibrous pie similar to processed pumpkins commonly bought canned.
Winter squash is a tasty source of carbohydrates. It is a good source of dietary fiber and research has shown that 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. 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. Vitamin A is necessary for healthy skin, vision, bone development and maintenance. The nutrient content of winter squash varieties depending on the variety. On average, 1 cup of cooked cubes contains 90 calories, 2 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams dietary fiber, 0 grams fat, 29 grams calcium, 0.67 mg iron, 895 mg potassium and 57 mcg folate.
Try this recipe for a different side dish.
Baked Acorn Squash with Pineapple
Makes six servings
1 large acorn squash (about 32 ounces)
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup crushed pineapple, drained
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground ginger
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds. Place each half, cut side down, in a baking dish. Cover dish and bake for 45-60 minutes until squash is soft and tender. Meanwhile, combine the cinnamon, pineapple, nutmeg, allspice and ginger. When squash is cooked, remove from oven. Let it cool for 10 minutes. Scoop out the pulp from both halves and combine with the pineapple mixture. Replace mixture into shells and return to the oven and bake for seven minutes until pineapple mixture is hot and bubbly.
Nutrition information per serving: 80 calories, 21 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams dietary fiber, 1g protein, 10% vitamin A, 35% vitamin C
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.