Extension Educator, Horticulture
Squash is a highly underrated vegetable. What other vegetable looks beautiful as table decoration, can be stored for months and retains its flavor and nutrition? Certainly not that spinach you bought last week that's now turned to mush in the vegetable drawer. Squash can be used in many recipes from casseroles, breads, stir fry and desserts.
Winter squash differs from summer squash such as zucchini in that winter squash is harvested when the fruit is mature, the rind is hard and the seeds within are completely developed. Whether it's a pumpkin or squash has more to do with tradition than botany. Gourds have a hard rind with little or no inner flesh. Look for labels when you shop. If you want to purchase any one of over 300 varieties of squash than head to the Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur.
Illinois-grown winter squash is available September through November. Winter squash, especially the deep orange-fleshed varieties, are an excellent source of beta-carotene that the body uses to make vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for healthy skin, vision, bone development and maintenance. Winter squash is also a good source of fiber, potassium, niacin, iron and vitamin C and it is low in calories.
Winter squash are warm loving plants and since most produce long vines they are best suited to large gardens.
To buy winter squash the rind should have a dull sheen and be intact and hard. If the stem is still attached, it should be rounded and dry, not shriveled, blackened or moist. Most squash will store at least three months. Hubbard will last at least six months. Best storage is dry between 50–55°F.
Most winter squash are eaten cooked. Their hard shells and seeds are not eaten. All winter squash bakes well. Most varieties have a sweet, buttery, firm flesh and can be substituted for one another in recipes, with the exception of spaghetti squash.
Acorn squash is good for baking and goes well with sweet, nutty or spice stuffings. Cooked butternut squash, with its fine-grained flesh is perfect for pureeing. After baking spaghetti squash, lift out the sweet mild-tasting, tender, crunchy strands and serve like pasta.
Delicata is a pretty little squash, sometimes known as the sweet potato squash. It is a long cylindrical shape and cream colored with green stripes. Sweet Dumpling has the same coloration only round and fluted and makes a nice single serving.
To cook winter squash, place unpeeled pieces cut sides down on a shallow baking dish with a little water and bake in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes or longer. Check for doneness by piercing with a fork or skewer. When tender, remove from the oven and allow the pieces to cool. Spoon out the soft flesh and mash with a fork or process in a blender or food processor. Use with any recipe calling for cooked mashed or pureed squash. Or microwave the squash pieces on high for 15 minutes or longer.
Small acorn squash and spaghetti squash can be pierced in several places with a long-tined fork or metal skewer and baked whole. Be sure to thoroughly pierce the shell or the squash will burst during cooking. Place the squash on a baking dish and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at 325°F. The squash is done when it gives a bit with a slight squeeze.
Winter squash also makes a good pie. Most people cannot tell whether pumpkin or squash is used in a pie. Many cooks prefer winter squash to pumpkin because it makes a non-fibrous pie.
Check out the U of I Extension Watch Your Garden Grow website for more information and recipes for winter squash.
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