By Nancy Mehlert, MS
Now more than ever, there are a multitude of sizes and shapes and colors and in many cases, what we think is a kind of pumpkin, is really another relative in the winter squash family. We decorate and carve them but sometimes forget to appreciate the amazing dishes they make too! So today, let’s focus on the nutritional opportunity and great tastes found in the winter squash family.
There are more than a dozen varieties of winter squash and they are sweeter, denser and firmer than the summer squash (zucchini and yellow crookneck). In flavor and texture they generally tend to be more similar in taste and texture to a sweet potato though there are variances.
Winter squash is an excellent replacement for potato, pasta, corn, and rice. They are an excellent vegetable option, generally low in calories and fat and a wonderful source of fiber, vitamin A and C, B6, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium and iron. They are also rich in important phytonutrients, plant nutrients that provide many specific health benefits but are not included in the definition of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, or fats. Examples of phytonutrients that may sound familiar to you are lutein, quercetin, and zeaxanthin, all of which are found in winter squash.
The most popular and easily found winter squashes are Pumpkin, Spaghetti, Butternut, Acorn and Delicata. Other less common varieties include Red Kabocha, Carnival, Sweet Dumpling, Red Kuri, Buttercup and Blue Hubbard. Here are the ones represented in the picture:
Acorn, Sweet Dumpling and Carnival squash are all very similar in shape, much like an acorn. In our picture, the Carnival Squash is on the lower left and the Acorn is on the lower right. A Sweet Dumpling is shaped the same however its skin is edible and it is whitish and yellowish with slight bits of green in the folds of the squash. These squash are mellow, mild and sweet and can be used as a bowl to hold fillings such as chopped apple and cinnamon, ground sage sausage and quinoa or just plain butter. They are small enough to bake like a baked potato – just poke a small hole to vent, bake at 350° for 30-40 minutes until tender. Cut open, scoop out seeds in the center and if desired, fill up the hole and serve.
If you plan to bake more once filled, then remove them from the oven after 25 minutes, fill up and then place back in the oven until heated through.
Delicata squash are uniquely shaped in an oblong fashion, with edible yellow skin and green lines lengthwise. There are two in our picture along the back row, one to the right of the spaghetti squash and one to the right of the pumpkin. The flesh is creamy and soft with a sweet taste that will thrill kids and adults alike. Easy to prepare and quick to roast, just slice down the middle, scoop out the seeds and place single layer on a baking sheet with olive oil, coconut oil or melted butter, salt and pepper if desired. Herbs such as rosemary or thyme would pair nicely. If you are patient for pretty results, it is attractive to slice one inch pieces of the whole squash and carve out the seeds in the middle. The end result is a pretty flower-looking slice that will impress your guests.
Kabocha Squash and Buttercup Squash are very similar in appearance and can be confusing. In our picture, they are the two dark green squash on the left half of the picture. The larger one in the center is the Buttercup, distinguishable by its flat bottom. The Kabocha has a base that points out rather than in. Freshly cut, they have a very clean fragrance much like cucumber, though once cooked, are mild, dense and only slightly sweet. The Red Kabocha Squash (not pictured) is more similarly colored like a pumpkin, but is unmistakably sweeter. These squash roast well but are also perfect for creamy squash soup.
If you have yet to try Spaghetti Squash, (pictured on the left, bright yellow)you are missing out on the popular new rage to replace the pasta on your plate. A rather amazing phenomenon, when you bake this squash and begin to remove the flesh with a dinner fork, the flesh comes out in fine, angel hair pasta-like strands. Its delicate and mild taste pairs beautifully with traditional marinara, as well as simply tossed with pecorino romano cheese, cilantro or parsley and butter. Scramble leftovers in a pan for breakfast with chopped bacon and you have a delightful eggless breakfast. Smaller ones bake easily whole like a baked potato at 350-375° in 25-40 minutes while larger ones cook fast if cut in half first, remove the seeds and bake face down in a little bit of water.
Finally, the Pumpkin is the bright orange iconic symbol for October, Halloween and Fall. If you want to ditch the canned pumpkin, pick up the sweet, small Sugar Pumpkins that are easy to bake and puree for all of your favorite pumpkin recipes.
Be healthy, enjoy Fall and eat some squash!