- Preparing hard winter squash can be downright dangerous if you are attacking it with a sharp knife! There are some easy ways to avoid a trip to the emergency room though.
- Squashes, one of the few native American foods, are worth the extra effort. Not only are they tasty, all parts are useful and nutritious too.
- Winter squash can be prepared hundreds of ways; everything from stuffed to pickled and savory to sweet.
What is Winter Squash?
It sounds crazy, but there really aren’t that many different foods native to the Americas. Beans are one, along with cranberries, and potatoes. And squash – especially the hard-skinned varieties that we collectively call winter squash.
The word squash, comes from an Algonquian word. The Algonquians were the first peoples the Pilgrims encountered, thus tradition has it that squash was served at the first Thanksgiving.
Winter squash, like their siblings – summer squash, are the fruit of a vining plant. Summer squash can be harvested after about 50 days, and has edible skin. Winter squash require a longer growing period, usually around 100 days, and has a tough, inedible skin. Summer squash are prolific growers, and don’t last very long once picked. Thus, the annual need for some of us to surreptitiously slip zucchini into every visitor’s handbag! Winter squash takes its time to mature, and stores well in a cool place for months after the harvest.
Winter squash are useful and nutritious and probably helped keep many an early settler alive. The seeds are high in protein and provide a healthy – and delicious – oil. The flesh is dry but filling, and full of fiber, Vitamins A, C, E, and many of the B Vitamins. PLUS, squash are a good source of magnesium, potassium, and other minerals. It’s almost the perfect food.
Squash’s hard shell can serve as a bowl and broken pieces can serve as scoops or spoons.
There are actually hundreds of types of winter squash, growing all over North, Central, and South America. Some are delicately flavored, while others have a robust taste. No matter what the variety, squashes grown in colder areas are more flavorful, and often drier, than those grown in temperate environments.
Squash vs. Pumpkin vs. Gourds
Are squashes pumpkins? Or are pumpkins squashes? Or are they two separate things altogether? And what about gourds?
First up – technically they are all squashes. Acorn Squash – Squash. Butternut – Squash. Delicata – Squash. Pumpkin – Squash. Even gourds are squash. But like any big family, they all differ a bit.
There are three or four main branches of the squash tree. Some varieties belong to one branch, others to a different branch. Unless you are interested in botany, there really isn’t a reason to remember which branch is which – we eat squashes from all of the branches.
Different squashes are called pumpkins in different places. Here in the U.S. we usually refer to large, round, orange squashes as pumpkins. We tend to use the term, pumpkin, when referring to a decorative item or a Jack-o-lantern. And we tend to use the term, squash, when referring to a foodstuffs. Almost all of our Jack-o-lantern pumpkins are the same variety. The thinner-skinned squash is grown as a monoculture for the Halloween market.
Gourds, spaghetti squash, and acorn squash all come from the same family branch. But gourds are like the wacky cousins who march to a different drummer. Gourds come in numerous shapes, sizes, and colors, but are more popular as decorative items. Their extremely hard skin and small amount of flesh makes them inedible. However, they can be dried out and turned into bird houses or fairy garden homes or musical instruments!
Preparing Winter Squash
As delicious as winter squash is, and it’s one of my favorite vegetables, it can be frustrating to prepare at home. Hard skin, coupled with a round, rolling shape, means cutting into the thing can sometimes lead to cut fingers and stitches. Some grocery stores sell cut, peeled, and cubed raw winter squash but my local stores don’t provide this service. All is not lost however, here’s how to prepare your own squash for cooking.
- Make sure the skin is hard and there are no soft spots. Soft skin on a winter squash means that the flesh has probably spoiled. If your squash is soft, turn it into compost.
- Wash the squash or wipe it off. Squash grows on the ground and may carry bacteria on its skin.
- If possible, cut off the pointy or rounded end so that the squash sits flat on a cutting board.
- Using a large, sharp knife cut the squash in half – if you can! Remove the seeds, cut the squash into pieces and peel.
- Is the squash too hard to cut? Make a couple of slits with the knife and place the squash in the microwave for a few minutes. Cool, then proceed with step 4.
- Of course, you can bake the whole thing for 10 minutes or so instead of using the microwave, and then follow step 4.
- Or you can halve and bake the squash, then remove the flesh from the skin – basically putting the peeling step last.
How to Cook or Preserve Winter Squash
Much like potatoes, winter squash can be prepared in numerous ways. It can be:
Baked: Cut into pieces, drizzled with olive oil, and baked at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes.
Stuffed: Cut in half, baked and then stuffed with a filling, and roasted for an additional 20 minutes or so.
Boiled: Peeled and cut into cubes, boiled in water until soft and then drained and mashed.
Steamed: Peeled and cut into cubes, steamed in a basket over hot water, then mashed.
Microwave: Cooking in the microwave is basically the same as steaming over hot water. Peel and cut into cubes, and cook in the microwave until soft.
Preserved: Squash cubes can be pickled, the cooked flesh can be mashed and frozen for future use, it can be made into squash butter and frozen for future use (see recipe below), it can be cubed and canned in a pressure canner, and can even be sliced and dehydrated. And fresh winter squash keeps well in a cool, dry place (not the refrigerator) for several months.