Extension Educator, Horticulture
Squash is a highly underrated vegetable. What other vegetable looks beautiful as table decoration, is tasty in sweet or savory dishes, and retains its flavor and nutrition even after months of storage? In addition few vegetables are as versatile in their culinary usage. Squash can be used in many recipes from casseroles, breads, stir fry, and desserts. Some varieties have thin seeds suitable for roasting.
The terminology can be confusing. Is it a squash, gourd, or pumpkin? They are all in the cucurbit family but different species. Winter and summer squash are both edible. 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, therefore are not eaten but used for decoration or utility such as birdhouses. Check out the Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur for over 300 varieties.
Illinois-grown winter squash is available September through November. Winter squash are warm loving plants and did pretty well with our droughty summer. 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.
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 and 55 degrees F.
Most winter squash are eaten cooked. 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. Winter squash makes a good pie and few people could tell the difference between pumpkin and squash.
Acorn squash is good for baking and goes well with sweet, nutty or spice stuffing. 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', also called the sweet potato squash, is a pretty little squash with its long cylindrical shape and green striped cream colored rind. '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. When tender, remove from the oven and allow the pieces to cool. Spoon out the soft flesh and mash with a fork, process in a blender or food processor. Use with any recipe calling for cooked mashed or pureed squash. Or cook squash pieces in microwave 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. 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.
Check out the U of I Extension website for more information and recipes for winter squash.
Saturday October 20, 2012 from 9 a.m. to noon for the University Avenue Tree Walk in Champaign. Meet on the corner of University Avenue and Victor, just one block east of Mattis Avenue.