Winter Squash The Fruits of Autumn
Thursday 1st November 2007
Winter squash must surely be one of the most versatile of all vegetables. What other vegetable can be baked alongside a Sunday roast, pureed into the silkiest of soups, can take on intense spices to be cooked in a curry, or baked into the sweetest of dessert pies. The flesh can even be candied and made into jams and other preserves, or hollowed out and used as a decorative centre piece. A one cup serving of this multifunctional gourd is a mere 115 calories, but is loaded with Beta Carotene, Vitamin C, and is an excellent source of dietary fibre.
Winter squash are members of the gourd or Cucurbita Maxima family. We think of them as vegetables; botanically, however, they are fruits because they each develop from a flower. Although pumpkins are one of the most well known varieties of Cucurbita, there are several other beautiful varieties in a myriad of colors which grace farmer�s markets and grocery stores in the fall. Among these are the Waltham Butternut, Buttercup, Royal Acorn, Hubbard (Golden, Blue, and Green), Hercules, Kindred, Delicata (also known as �sweet potato squash�), Boston Marrow, and Spaghetti Squash, to name but a few.
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. If stored correctly, squash can last for several months. To store squash properly, it should be �cured� for 10-20 days at room temperature (20�C), then transferred to a cooler (10�C), but dry environment. The exception to this rule is the smaller variety of squash, such as delicata, acorn, and sweet dumpling. Larger varieties of winter squash will keep for six months, while smaller varieties will keep up to 3 months. Winter squash should not be kept in the refrigerator due to high humidity; cut winter squash is very perishable and should be refrigerated and eaten within a few days.
Origins and Culture
In some countries, all winter squash are referred to as �pumpkins�. But in North America, �pumpkin� refers only to the large, segmented ones, often seen around Thanksgiving. The earliest record of human use of squash comes from Mexico, where caches of seeds of squash have been found from habitations older than 9000 years. Considered the �Apple of God�, the belief was that squash seeds would increase fertility if planted close by, and indeed those with large squash fields did produce large families. In the New World, squash was used as a major food crop and planted by native peoples. The larger gourds became popular as containers, or vessels, for carrying water and other liquids, and as places for mixing brews, such as tea.
Nutritional and Medicinal Properties
Winter squash contains known anti-inflammatory nutrients, including Vitamin C and folate. It is also an excellent source of Vitamin A � one cup of baked Butternut Squash provides well over 9300 mcg of Beta Carotene. It is also a very good source of dietary fibre, Vitamin E, Vitamin B6, as well as potassium and magnesium. Nutritional variations do occur among the array of squash. Orange-fleshed varieties are particularly excellent sources of beta-carotene - the deeper the orange colour, the bigger the dose. Winter squash are one of the most nutritious vegetables, rivalling cabbage, carrots, and spinach. They are also one of the few vegetables that do not lose nutritional quality after picking.
Basic Cooking Instructions
Generally, winter squash have very similar flavour, although sweetness, flavour intensity, water content, and colour of the flesh will vary from type to type. Exceptions to this are the very small types, which are ideal for stuffing, baking, and serving as an individual portion � their flavour tends to not be very developed. One of the most popular ways of cooking winter squash is roasting, as this method concentrates its sweetness better than any other. For this purpose, the squash should be cut into chunks, then tossed in olive oil or butter and cooked in a roasting pan at 400�F for 20-30 minutes, or until golden and very soft. Eat and enjoy � often!
Carolyn Frail, B.A., B.A.SC., P.H.EC