Winter Squash & How To Use Them

 

This is going to sound condescending, and honest-to-goodness, I don’t mean it to….but til 2 weeks ago, I thought everyone knew that winter squash were food.  Yes, they’re very pretty sitting in a fall display on your porch, but they’re food.  I can understand why people believe they’re just for decoration, with all the beautiful drawings we see this time of the year of the Colonists’ homes with piles of squash and pumpkins on the porches at the first Thanksgiving.  But they weren’t there for pretty, they were there because they were just harvested and were being kept as storage crops.  They’re food, folks!  Up til the 50s and 60s, squash were a common storage crop that was grown in all gardens and stored in cool, dry cellars, crawl spaces and barns because they would keep for 6 months or longer and provide fresh food in the dead of winter when nothing else was available. Anyway, after I gained that bit of knowledge, it occurred to me that there are those among my beautiful readers who have no idea what to do with a squash.  Nor why bother.  Let me help you there because you are missing out on one of autumn’s most delicious crops!

So as you can see from the beautiful picture above, winter squash come in a hundred different sizes, shapes, colors, textures and flavors.   There are enormous pink and blue hubbards and green-striped cushaws that can run up to 20# or more, down to itty bitty, emerald green acorn squash that are barely big enough to feed one person.  Some of them are great winter “keepers” while others won’t last more than a few weeks.  But for the most part, all squash are the same.  They’re all cousins in the pumpkin family and as a rule, they can be prepared the same and used interchangeably in most dishes.  Let’s start at the beginning and learn how to pick one out, how to prep it and how to cook it.

Picking A Winter Squash

When you’re picking out winter squash, whether to store overwinter in your basement or cook immediately, you’re looking for the same characteristics.  Winter squash should feel quite heavy for their size as they typically have a thick layer of moist fruit inside the “shell”.  You want to check it over for gashes, mold or soft, bruised spots; if you find those, that is not the squash for you.  Check to be sure there’s a nice 2 inch stem on top; short/no stems can allow disease and general yuckiness into squash, so avoid that one too.  Last, pick a squash appropriate to your dish; there’s no reason to buy a blue hubbard and have 20 pounds of cooked squash sitting in the fridge if it’s a dinner for two.   The most popular squashes you’ll find at groceries and farmers markets in the fall are delicata, acorn and butternut, all of which are delicious!

Butternut Squash
Delicata Squash
Acorn Squash

 

Prepping A Winter Squash

I’m not going to lie to you:  getting INTO the squash is the hardest part of prepping it to eat.  If you’ve ever carved a pumpkin, you know how difficult it can be.  But I think carving a pumpkin is easier than a squash because squash are roly-poly and want to roll all around your cutting board.  So be careful.  Using a sharp, appropriately sized knife, you want to split the squash in half lengthwise, that is from pole to pole.  Not equator!  Once you’ve cut it in half, use a large spoon to remove the seeds and stringy bits inside the cavity of the squash and you’re all ready to roll.  And yes, you can bake the seeds just like pumpkin seeds.

How In The World Do You Eat This Thing?!

Unlike pumpkin, that we traditionally ONLY eat in pie form, squash can be eaten dozens of different ways.  In our house, we love simple baked squash.  Take the squash and place it in a baking dish, cut side up and brush the squash with a little bit of oil or melted butter.  Roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes or until the densest part of the squash is fork-tender.  Carefully remove the squash from the pan and scrape the flesh into a serving bowl.  Top with brown sugar, cinnamon, maple syrup, honey, chopped nuts or whatever appeals to your taste buds!

Another favorite for us is Roasted Squash with Apples and Cranberries.  You simply cube the raw squash, toss it with butter, diced apples, fresh/dried cranberries and bake.  Something about those tart berries against the sweet squash and apples just makes this dish come alive!  I really love this served alongside a roast chicken or pork loin.

A third very popular squash recipe is Butternut squash soup (though any squash can be substituted).  There are very simple, savory recipes out there, such as this one from Food Network or sweeter versions that include green apple and cinnamon from Simply Recipes.  I tend toward the apple version because the I love the tang of the apple against the sweet squash.  Either direction you go, it’s only a matter of simmering the ingredients in broth til the squash is tender, pureeing til smooth and seasoning with the appropriate spices.  It’s seriously easy, my friends!

Last idea for today is a stuffed squash. I’ll be totally honest with you:  I don’t like stuffed squash.  I think it’s because the squash is so sweet and mild that it’s often overwhelmed with savory spices, heavy meats and fillings in the dressing.  The whole idea sort of gags me, to be honest, but I think that if someone stuffed the squash with a milder, sweeter filling, like this sweet cornbread and apple dressing, I believe I could have a go at that one.  All you do for stuffed squash is prep it as we did above, brush with butter or oil, stuff the cavity with the dressing of your choice and bake til the squash is tender and the dressing heated through.  So simple!

Anyway, the next time you see winter squash marked down at the end of the season, or thrown out because they were only purchased for décor, I hope you’ll snag them and give them a try.  They’re a delicious, nutritious, simple way to eat local and seasonal all winter long!

 

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