Seasonal Eats: Winter Squash
The gourd is a sweet fall treat
Candy has ruined October. Instead of anticipating the month's harvest, most people focus on the annual candy-corn-and-mini-Snickers binge that comes with Halloween. That's a shame, since there's a much healthier way to treat your sweet tooth: by cooking up some succulent seasonal squash.
A rainbow of squash—hunter green, peachy tan, tangerine, jade, and buttercream—is available at most markets and is a good source of key nutrients like beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. Winter squash, the tougher-skinned sister to summer squash like zucchini, is harvested in September and October and can keep through January. No matter its variety, a good winter squash should feel heavy for its size and be free from any cuts, breaks, or soft spots. To make sure your squash is as tasty on New Year's Day as it is on Halloween, store it in a dry room cooled to about 40 or 50 degrees. "Traditionally, people would store [squash] in their old farmhouse in the bedroom. People would keep them under the bed. Those conditions are best for squash," says Ryan Voiland, owner of Red Fire Farm in Granby, Mass., who has been growing squash for decades. The condition of the squash is also an important factor in how well it stores. "Unless you want to eat it right away, you don't want any nicks," Voiland says.
Before you head to your local market to shop for squash, note that there are differences among varieties. "There are probably hundreds, or more than hundreds, of different varieties of squash," says Voiland. "Different varieties have different characteristics. Some are moister. I'd consider the butternut to be a very moist squash. Other varieties are drier. The kabocha is dry and almost flaky inside." If you've tried squash before and didn't like the taste, consider purchasing from a different seller. According to Voiland, winter squash's sweetness varies from farm to farm, hinging on the gourd's level of curing. Curing, the process of storing just-picked squash for a couple of weeks in a dry, warm environment, can cause some varieties (except for acorn, sweet dumpling, and delicata squash) to become sweeter.
It'll take a bit of taste testing to determine if you're partial to one squash over another, but the seven following varieties are widely available and worth trying ...
Butternut: Possibly the best-known winter squash, butternut has a long neck with a round bulb at the base that holds the seeds. Don't be fooled by the blah-beige skin; inside is sweet potato–orange flesh. For sweeter flesh, look for darker, tan skin. Since slicing into the squash can be difficult if the upper portion is twisted, buy butternut with a straight, long neck, says Keith Snow, a North Carolina chef and author of The Harvest Eating Cookbook.
Acorn: The ribbed squash is aptly named: Its shape resembles an acorn. The dark green rind hides yellow flesh inside. When ripe, the spot on its skin that rested on the ground should be bright orange.
Spaghetti: Unlike other varieties of winter squash, which have a solid interior, the flesh of a spaghetti squash is thin and stringy like its namesake. The squash is smooth and egg-shaped with a buttery yellow skin and orangey flesh. Thanks to its texture, the squash can replace high-carb pasta in Italian dishes.
Pumpkin: Admittedly, pumpkins aren't technically a type of squash. But, like winter squash, they are a gourd, the fruit of a species of Cucurbita plant and often used in baking or cooking. Skip larger varieties, which are better suited for jack-o'-lanterns, and instead pick Sugar, Baby Pam, or Baby Bear pumpkins. According to Voiland, the difference between these and the monstrous gourds that scare little kids on fright night is the variety; these are sweeter and fully mature when they reach between 3 and 6 pounds.
Delicata: This type of squash, nicknamed "sweet potato" squash for the sugary taste of its flesh, is oblong and creamy beige with dark green stripes running from end to end. "They're one of my favorites," says Voiland. "They tend to be one of the sweetest, tastiest types." Peter Berley, a chef and cooking instructor in New York City and author of Fresh Food Fast: Create Delicious, Seasonal Vegetarian Meals in Under an Hour, likes this variety for its simplicity: "It cooks quickly, and you don't have to peel it," he says.
Buttercup: This round, green squash is favored for its sweet, deep orange flesh. The darker the skin, the sweeter the squash. According to Berley, the thin flesh is edible, so no peeling is required.
Kabocha: Kabocha is the generic Japanese word for squash, but stateside the term refers to a specific type of squash that's similar to the buttercup—round and deep green. The flesh is yellowish orange and drier than other varieties.
Keep reading for tips on how to cook squash.
Slicing into a squash can be a challenge, so start with a sharp chef's knife, which has a sturdy 8- to 10-inch blade that won't get stuck in the thick flesh. Whether you halve, quarter, or cube the squash depends on your cooking method. If you're using squash in a soup (you can steam it beforehand or let it cook in the broth), you'll have to peel the skin and dice the flesh before cooking. Berley suggests chopping the squash into halves or quarters, and then using a vegetable peeler to remove the skin before cutting it into smaller slices.
Because of its shape, butternut squash can wobble and make cutting seem impossible. Snow suggests cutting the long stem away from the bulb to create a stable, flat surface. Another trick: Lay a wet (but wrung-out) dish towel between the counter and cutting board to prevent the board from sliding. Some squash, particularly butternut, is sold precut at the grocery store. While Berley and Snow generally avoid it since the flavor isn't as intense, both agree that presliced squash is a good option for people who have trouble wielding a large knife.
Baked or roasted squash can cook skin-on since, once it's cooked, the flesh will peel away from the outer layer. To bake any variety of squash, Berley says, halve it and remove the seeds and the gooey membranes that encase them. Place it cut side down in a roasting pan filled with a half-inch of water, and bake at 350 degrees until the flesh is soft. Once the squash has been removed from the oven, you can spoon out the meat to puree into a soup or pie filling, layer into lasagna, or season and eat as is.
Roasting squash is equally easy: Place squash—peeled and diced or halved with the skin on—in a roasting pan, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with seasoning, and cook at 400 degrees until the flesh is soft. Skinless pieces of roasted squash can be served as a side dish (squash has a caramel-like sweetness), stirred into risotto, or used as a pizza topping with sage, blue cheese, and olive oil, Snow says. Scoop out the flesh from squash roasted with the skin intact and eat it as a side dish. Or use half of the vegetable as a serving dish; Snow serves wild rice with chicken or nutmeg-spiked pasta in the hollowed-out center of a roasted acorn squash.
Like sweet potatoes, much of the squash you'll find on restaurant menus is sweetened with brown sugar and spiked with cinnamon. Though the flavors lend themselves to sweet dishes, Berley says winter squash and pumpkin are complemented just as well with savory spices. "Curry is beautiful with squash," he says. "It's great with chili and chipotle." Try seasoning your squash with sage, thyme, rosemary, garlic, cumin, caraway, or coriander. Snow likes to roast it with a little butter, lime juice, cumin, and salt and pepper before stuffing it into a whole wheat burrito with black beans.
"[Squash has] got to be one of the most versatile things you can cook with," says Snow. So pick a few varieties and experiment. By the end of the season you'll have a handful of favorite dishes that are just the right amount of sweet—and much healthier than those typical October treats.