I have a love-hate relationship with squash. I love it for its amazing versatility in the kitchen and its sheer abundance in the garden that invites endless experimentation, yet I hate it because despite my efforts year after year, I haven’t managed to successfully grow it in my midwestern garden (thanks to bugs, borers, excessive heat and drought). So, every year when squash season arrives — early summer through late fall — I support my local (more skilled) gardeners and farmers and buy squash by the armful. From soups and side dishes to cakes and breads, squash lends itself to all of them, so there’s never a reason for squash of any kind to go to waste.
Similarly to corn, early squash was quite different than the kind we consume today. Cultivated by Native Americans, squash was prized for its seeds since it didn’t have much flesh — the little flesh it did have was bitter and unpalatable. As it continued to be cultivated and introduced throughout the New World, varieties were developed to have sweet-tasting flesh and an abundance of it. Christopher Columbus brought squash back to Europe and it continued to make its way into the world via Spanish and Portugese explorers.
Summer squash which includes zucchini, yellow, scallop, and patty-pan types are still abundant in early fall in most parts of the country. With their creamy flesh, they make an excellent base for soups (no cream required) or an addition to bread recipes. Winter squash, just coming on in early fall, includes pumpkin, acorn, butternut, delicata and dumpling, Hubbard, and other types like spaghetti and buttercup. Loaded with carotenoids and antioxidants, winter squash truly is a superfood. Winter squash can be incorporated into endless dishes to add bulk, flavor, and moistening properties; it’s so versatile that it really can be considered a year-round staple.
The flavor of winter squash is best brought out by the high heat of baking or sauteing; however, it can be steamed too. Here are some tips for preparation:
Bake: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Place 1/2" water in a baking dish and add the squash, cut-side down. Cover with foil. Begin checking for doneness after 30 minutes. Bake up to 1 hour.
Saute: More labor intensive than baking, slice the squash into manageable pieces, then peel it by cutting away large sections of rind with a sharp knife. Cut the flesh into 1" cubes, toss with olive oil or butter, and saute over medium-high heat for 20 minutes or until tender.
Steam: Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Put 1/2" of water in a large saucepan or stockpot and add the squash, cut side up. Cover and heat on medium high until tender, replenishing water if needed.
Once the squash has been cooked tender, scoop the flesh from the shell (if baked or steamed), and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth.
A few ideas for eating squash:
• Slice a large summer squash in half, score the flesh and brush with olive oil and maple syrup. Season with ancho chile powder or other spices and grill, cut side up, over low heat until the flesh is rendered custard-like.
While summer squash is fleeting, winter squash has the added benefit of being able to store for up to 6 months, depending on the variety and storage conditions. If picked from the garden, store winter squash in a dark place where it will not be exposed to extreme heat or extreme cold. The ideal temperature for storing winter squash is between 50-60 degrees F (about 10-15 C). To freeze winter squash, peel it and cut into cubes; store it in zip-top freezer bags.
Try some delicious squash recipes:
More Reasons to Grow Your Own
Winter squash is a vegetable that might be especially important for us to grow ourselves or purchase organic. Studies have shown that winter squash can be an effective intercrop for farmers looking to remediate contaminated soils. According to whfoods.com, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including pyrene, fluoranthene, chrysene, benzo(a)anthracene and benzo(a)pyrene are unwanted contaminants in soil that can be effectively pulled up by winter squash plants.
When winter squash is planted as a food crop (as opposed to a non-food crop that is being planted between food crop seasons to help improve soil quality), some of the soil contaminants are transferred into the food due to the effectiveness of winter squash in mobilizing contaminants from the soil. For this reason, purchase certified, organic, winter squash or better yet, grow your own.
Heirloom Gardener Editor Karen Keb operates Prairie Turnip Farm in Osage County, Kansas, with her husband, Oscar H. Will III.