Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Winter Squash

Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.

Between Hurricane Sandy and the presidential election countdown, it’s fair to say we are a nation distracted, but we are sure a fair number of you have still got the Great Pumpkin on the brain, Charlie Brown. It only seems fitting — especially with tumbling temperatures and rapidly falling leaves — that winter squash is this week’s Real Food spotlight.

A Brief History/ Factual Nibbles

  • A few notes on nomenclature: If you hail from Britain or a place formerly under British rule, you're likely to refer to all winter squash as “pumpkin.” The same idea applies to Spanish-speaking cultures here, in Central America and in parts of the Caribbean, where it’s generically referred to as calabaza. On this side of the pond, Anglos tend to make the distinction between jack-o-lantern pumpkins and the many other varieties of winter squash.
  • Don’t let the word “winter” fool you: Winter squash is actually harvested in autumn before a hard frost and stored for later.  When most people had root cellars, they would harvest the squash in the fall and store it through the cold season, hence the name.
  • And the botanical difference between winter squash and summer squash? Very little. They're both from the same plant family, cucurbita, and both ripen on a vine, but look and act like they're from different tribes. Zucchini and the summer varieties have tender skin and almost nonexistent seeds and can be eaten raw. Winter varieties boast tougher skins, larger seeds and a flesh that needs to be cooked.
  • Squash is most likely native to Guatemala and Mexico and surrounding areas dating to 10,000 years ago.
  • According to cookbook author and Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy, calabaza is one of the earliest known foods to be domesticated in pre-Columbian Mexico. However, it may have been the seeds that were sought after, not the flesh, which would make sense, given the central role pumpkin seeds (pepitas) play in moles and other sauces throughout Mexico, particularly in the Yucatan.
  • It is believed that Christopher Columbus brought squash to Europe.
  • As mentioned in my Real Food dispatch on zucchini, along with corn and beans, squash was one of the "three sisters" crops planted by native Americans. The word squash comes from the Narranganesett word "askutasquash," translated as "green thing eaten raw."
  • That orange stuff in the can that we've all used for pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving at some point? It’s most likely butternut squash.

Cultivation

There are dozens of cultivars to choose from, and as cooks and eaters become more interested in local produce, there are more on offer at farmers' markets and through farm share programs.

Before we dig into some of my favorite varieties, I need to make clear that the ubiquitous acorn squash is my least favorite. It’s stringy, lacking flavor and you need an axe to pry it open.  There are so many more interesting choices, such as....

  • Delicata: An oblong, mini football-looking cultivar, yellow or orange and sometimes with stripes, which tastes like a cross between sweet potato, corn and squash. It’s also one of the most thin-skinned winter varieties, which makes cutting and cooking a snap.
  • Kabocha: This is the generic word in Japanese for winter squash, making it tricky because there are several kinds to choose from (including Kuri), but it’s typically green or gray-green on the outside and often sold in cut-up hunks at markets because of its very tough exterior. However, you're in for a treat; the flesh is like velvet. One of my favorites.
  • Butternut: I like to refer to this as the little black dress of winter squash. It’s versatile, all purpose and its skin is thinner than many other cultivars, making it relatively easy to cut through.
  • Spaghetti: Also known as vegetable spaghetti, this light yellow cultivar truly looks like a football (or maybe a watermelon), and is lovely roasted whole. Why spaghetti? When you rake over the cooked flesh with a fork, the resulting strands resemble pasta.

Environmental Impact

As for environmental impact, it ranks 34 out of 45 on the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which means it’s got a relatively low pesticide load. Still, we recommend that you buy organic whenever possible and shop locally so you can ask questions about how the squash was grown.  Because uncut squash stores well in a cool dark place outside of the refrigerator, food waste is less likely — and don’t forget to roast those seeds!

Seasonality

In the four-season parts of the country, winter squash is having its heyday right now and through the rest of the year. Start planning those Thanksgiving menus! At year-round farmers' markets, it will likely share the spotlight with hardy cruciferous vegetables and frost-resistant greens like kale and collards.

Characteristics

What to Look For

Pretty please: no boo-boos, soft spots (a sign that rotting is underway). The squash should make a hollow sound when tapped. If the stem is still attached, it too should be firm and intact. If storing in the refrigerator, keep in a paper versus plastic bag, as plastic creates moisture.

Nutrition

That beautiful orange and yellow flesh is also the source of uber powerful disease-fighting antioxidants that protect against cataracts and stroke, for starters. It’s rich in Vitamin A, B6, C, potassium and fiber, for starters, and I love that you get some heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids as well.

Let’s put it this way: If all you had was a winter squash in the house for dinner, you'd be doing very well by your body.

What to Do with It

Larger varieties like the Kabocha can be impenetrable and may need wrangling of the swash buckling sort. When it needs a little encouragement, I bang it a few times on the floor, which usually yields an opening for a knife and  then I can whack it with ease.

Storage

Kept in a cool, dark and dry spot, winter squash should hold up for at least a month, and even longer if your storage space is well ventilated.

If you've got a leftover hunk of raw squash, resist the urge to wrap it in plastic and store unwrapped in the refrigerator.

Cooking

What can’t you do with winter squash? It’s wonderful roasted, then stuffed (recipe below), boiled & pureed for soup or incorporated into risotto, curried, stir-fried, gratineed, braised, used as a filling for ravioli…and of course you can roast the seeds.

Recipe

Delicata Boats with Red Rice Stuffing

From “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations”
Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

Ingredients
11/2 cups water
1 cup Bhutanese red rice (Plan B: long-grain Wehani; cooking times and liquid amounts may vary)
3 to 4 delicata squash (about 1 pound each)
1/8 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted shelled pistachios, chopped (Other options: walnuts, almonds, or pecans)
1/3 cup dried cranberries or cherries, chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground chile pepper of choice
Tools: Parchment paper

Kitchen notes: There’s enough filling for eight servings (one squash half per person). For a party of six, you'll have more than a cup of remaining filling, which you can bring to the table.

Here’s What You Do

Bring the water and the rice to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Lower the heat to low, cover, and cook at a simmer, 20 to 25 minutes. The rice will be done when water is absorbed and grains are tender to the bite.

Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Trim both ends of each squash and slice in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds and the attached pulp. Brush both sides of the squash with the olive oil, and season the inside to taste with salt and pepper.

Roast until easily pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes, and remove from the oven. Lower the oven heat to 350°F.

While the squash roasts, make the filling: Transfer the rice to a large mixing bowl and add the 1/8 cup of olive oil, and the parsley, nuts, dried fruit, fennel seeds, ginger, citrus zest, and chile pepper. Stir until the rice is coated with the oil and the mixture is well mixed. Add the 1/4 teaspoon of salt, stir, taste, and reseason if necessary.

Fill each squash half with about 1/4 cup of the filling. Return to the oven and heat for about 15 minutes, until the rice is warmed through.

Serve immediately, or lower the oven temperature to 225°F, cover with foil, and hold until ready to serve.

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