Pumpkins Pack More than Fun

We eat them in pies, pick them for fun, carve them and paint them. Their illuminated faces light our porches every year. Cinderella even rode to the ball in one!

We have a thing for pumpkins, especially this time of year. But did you know that pumpkins, and the rest of the winter squash family, are just as packed with vitamins as they are with fun? A one-cup serving of winter squash contains almost double the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of Beta-Carotene, and lots of vitamin C, niacin, phosphorus, potassium and fiber too. Native Americans considered squash so important that they buried it with their dead to nourish them in the afterlife. In fact, current research has proven their hunch, citing the anti-cancer and health-enhancing properties of this ancient vegetable. Navigating the world of winter squash may seem intimidating for the first-timer, so let‘s first cover the basics.

Winter Squash 101
Winter squash is a member of the Cucurbitaceous family and comes in many different varieties, differing widely in shape, color, size and flavor. But all winter squash have an inner cavity filled with seeds and a stringy pulp, and an outside of hard protective skin. This skin allows the squash to be stored into the winter (up to six months after its fall harvest), giving the vegetable its name. The flesh (the part you cook) is between the inner cavity and the skin. Peak buying season for winter squash is October through December, when a large selection is available at most local groceries.

The many varieties of winter squash can be divided into two categories.
  • Sweet Squash include Acorn, Buttercup, Butternut, Delicata, Kabocha, and of course pumpkin, which all have a naturally sweet flavor and are delicious alone or in dishes like pies or cakes.
  • Savory Squash include Banana, Golden Nugget, Hubbard, and Turban, and are delicious in soups and stews.
Of course there are a few exceptions that don’t fit into either category, which include Spaghetti and Chayote.

Cooking Methods
So how do you get past that tough exterior to the sweet and nutritious goodness that’s inside? Here are the three basic cooking methods for all winter squash.
  • Oven Method Cut squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and place squash in a baking dish, with the cut sides down. Add 1/2 inch of water to the pan to prevent the squash from drying out. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-60 minutes, or until the skin is easily pierced with a fork. Scoop flesh out of skin and prepare as desired.
  • Stove Top Method Cut squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and cut squash into large chunks, leaving the skin attached. Place chunks in large steamer basket and steam for 20 minutes or until tender. Cut or peel off the skin and prepare squash as desired.
  • Microwave Method Cut squash in half, scoop out the seeds, and cut squash into large chunks, leaving skin attached. Place in a shallow, microwave-safe dish with a lid. Coat the cut surfaces with cooking spray and cover. Cook on high power for 15 minutes or until tender.

Winter Squash Recipes
There are an infinite number of recipes incorporating winter squash. Here are just a few ideas and recipes to get you started. First, cook as directed using any of the methods above.

Simple Sweet Squash (40 minutes)
Using any of the sweet squash varieties listed above, cook as directed. Add to the cooked squash a tablespoon of butter or spread, a tablespoon of pure maple syrup, and cinnamon and nutmeg to taste. Enjoy piping hot.

Simple Salty Squash (40 minutes)
Using any of the savory squash varieties listed above, cook as directed, coating cooked squash chunks with olive oil, tamari, ginger powder, and toasted squash seeds (recipe below). Enjoy piping hot.

Squash Bowls (30 minutes)
Smaller winter squash varieties like acorn, carnival or kabocha make striking soup bowls. To prepare, Cut 1-1/2 inches off of the stem end, scoop out the seeds, and place cut side down in a baking dish. If the rounded end of the "bowl" is too round to sit evenly, slice just a sliver from the bottom to level it. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, or until tender. Add soup and serve.

Sweet Spaghetti Squash (30 minutes)
Spaghetti squash has an intriguing texture much like spaghetti. Scrape the flesh from its shell with a fork after cooking to preserve this texture. Serves 6.

You will need:
1 medium spaghetti squash
1 tablespoon butter
4 medium carrots, grated
1 shallot, minced
1/4 cup raisins (optional)
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

Cut squash in half lengthwise. Scrape out seeds and place squash cut-side down in vegetable steamer. Steam for 20 minutes, or until just tender. When the shell is cool enough to handle, use a fork to scrape flesh into a bowl, set aside.

In a wok or large saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add carrots, shallot and raisins. Sauté for 3 minutes, and then add water. Cover and simmer until carrots are almost tender, about 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and combine well. Turn heat down to low and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Remove lid and continue simmering, stirring frequently, until all water is absorbed. Serve hot.

Wait, don’t pitch the seeds!
High in fiber and flavor, toasted squash seeds make a wonderful snack or salad addition.
First wash seeds under the faucet in a strainer to remove strings and blot dry. Season with dried herbs, salt, or Mrs. Dash. Here are two ways to prepare them:
  1. Toss seeds with vegetable oil to coat. Add seasonings. Spread on a baking sheet and bake at 250 degrees for 40-60 minutes or until crispy.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons butter or spread in a non-stick skillet. Add 2 cups seeds and toss to coat. Add seasonings. Cook, stirring, for 5-10 minutes or until crisp. Allow to cool on paper towels.