A Guide to Winter Squash
Around this time of year, the squashes are starting to get big. Having been sown in summer, they reach maturity as fall begins. October is when they get ridiculous, with some breeds growing to several dozen pounds in weight. However, the vast majority will be snipped at a more reasonable 1-2 lbs and find their way by means of farm stands, farmers’ markets, supermarkets, and canning companies to the tables of millions of Americans.
The winter squashes are creative in their campaign to capture the attention of your dinner table. They show up mashed, their pleasing oranges and yellows far more festive than plain potatoes. Some lucky ones will be stuffed, their flesh crispy and insides sweet and rich, a perfect counterpoint to the medley of grains and nuts inside them. Most prominently, they come with a sweet side in all manner of desserts, but none more well-known than pumpkin pie.
The squashes (genus cucurbita) are a diverse set of gourds. They come in a huge array of colors, shapes and species. Summer squash, mostly members of the pepo species, are immature and watery fruits. Winter squash are far more genetically varied but are all united by their nutrient-rich, mature flesh. However, they demonstrate a remarkable variety when it comes to the flavor and texture of that flesh.
As the squash begin to get larger, our culture starts to promote the use of humble squashes with seasonal flavors, decorations, and recipes. Most well-covered are probably pumpkins (c. pepo var. pepo), and butternut squash (c. moschata), but these days the global food world is going crazy over their more humble and worldly cousins.
If you have ever tried making pumpkin pie with a jack-o’-lantern, you know that decorative pumpkins don’t taste too great. The main edible pumpkin variety is called sugar pie and you might be surprised at how it tastes. Pie pumpkins have a subtle, slightly vegetal flavor and benefit mightily from the traditional treatment: heavily spiced, enriched, and baked into a pie. Our earliest recipes for these pumpkins (from the Native Americans) saw them stuffed with honey and rich flavors and baked in their skins. While nothing can beat the flavor and texture of fresh-pumpkin pies, the canned stuff is a more than acceptable substitute. If you want to try to make your own this year, this is a great recipe.
Butternut, Buttercup, and Other Rich Orange Squashes
These squashes are surprisingly flavorful. The high level of carotenoids gives these squashes their distinct flavor – rich, sweet and with the same slightly green flavor that pumpkins have, not unlike a less dense, milder sweet potato. The rich flesh of these squashes is contrasted by their knobbly, bland flesh, and unsurprisingly the typical preparation takes them out of the flesh and into a more complex dish, where their assertive flavor compliments starches, dairy, oil, and the potency of sweet and savory spices. Recipes like butternut squash ravioli and butternut squash with rosemary and balsamic vinegar celebrate these squashes’ critical supporting role and may erase memories you have of bland butternut purees.
Hubbard, Calabaza, Kabocha and Red Kuri
These could be called the “worldly” squashes. Their flavor may be surprising to those raised on pumpkin and butternut, as each has its own distinct taste. Hubbard is often promoted as an alternative to sugar pumpkin, with some saying it has even more of the distinct pumpkin flavor. Calabaza, popular in Latin America, is not only known for its firm, sweet flesh (which keeps its form better than butternut) but for the taste of its blossoms and seeds (pepitas). Green-fleshed kabocha squash, popular in Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, has enjoyed major attention from chefs, especially on the west coast. Very sweet and fruity, it shows up famously in tempura and as a star in soups and stews. Its natural sweetness and moist, fluffy texture has also elicited praise from bakers looking for a more flavorful pie filling than traditional pie pumpkins. Its cousin, the red kuri, is even more fruity and even a little nutty, and is even more popular than kabocha in tempura and soup. If you find butternut squash too rich, the lighter flavor of the Asian squashes might convert you to squash fiend (it did for me!). All of these squashes are stars in any dish, flavorful but not overwhelming. Recipes like roasted red kuri pumpkin and cocounut soup, pigeon pea and calabaza stew, roasted kabocha squash tots and Thai red curry with kabocha squash focus on their distinct flavors.
After pumpkins and butternut squashes, acorns are probably the third most common type of winter squash found in the supermarket. Small with ridged dark-green skins, they are the perfect squash for a single person, as they cook up beautifully whole or split. They also have a wonderfully nutty flavor and soft texture that works well with all sorts of flavors. If you only want to buy one kind of squash, you could do much worse than acorn, as it is one of the most versatile textures and flavors and works well roasted, stuffed, pureed, or baked. This Kitchn article shows just how many ways you can enjoy acorn squash.
Spaghetti squash stand out from the rest because of its unique texture. Squashes by nature are fibrous but spaghetti squash are unique in that the fibers run in one direction. Properly scooped out, a spaghetti squash is uncannily similar to pasta with a mild flavor that has a surprising sympathy with pasta-type sauces. It isn’t exactly like pasta but it’s best when treated the same way. Salty, spicy, creamy, oily, if it’s a flavor-forward sauce it will lift spaghetti squash to new heights. And since spaghetti squash has only 51 calories a cup (compared to 160 for pasta), you can and should enjoy the full luxury of the sauces. Here are some great pasta-like preparations: spaghetti squash with ricotta, sage and pine nuts and skinny spaghetti squash alfredo.
If you’re still unsure about picking up a squash next time you’re at the store, consider these facts: squashes are ridiculously nutritious. They all have very high levels of potassium, magnesium, beta-carotene (especially the orange ones), and the B-complex vitamins. They also are low-calorie, low-fat, moderately low-carb (especially compared to sweet potatoes, which they resemble nutritionally), acceptable on a Paleo diet, and relatively inexpensive. Their soft texture lends a richness and creaminess to dishes without the necessity of added fat, but many of them (especially kabocha, kuri, and acorn) are also great alternatives to starches like potatoes. Beyond pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, canned pumpkin puree is a great source of moisture, especially in low-oil or egg-free baking. If you like brownies, a can of puree and a box of brownie mix are enough to produce a dense, fudgy brownie – perfect when you don’t want to babysit leftover eggs in your mini-fridge.
The delicious squash family deserves year-long veneration. These versatile fruits can play every role from savory side dish to delicious dessert to sauce, dressing, baking ingredient and filling. Their excellent nutritional profile is just the icing on the cake and a clear reason, if you weren’t already convinced, to pick up a can of puree or a tough, squat squash at your grocery store this autumn.
Cover photo source.