Friday, September 24, 2010

Focus: WINTER SQUASH (Cucurbita Maxima/Pepo/Moschata)

The days are getting shorter,  the rain keeps coming, my car guy says I need a new set of tires before winter and my yard is crying out for attention.  I took care of myself yesterday by making cream of winter squash soup.  I feel better already.  You might consider making a habit of always having some winter squash on hand from at least October through March.  First,  the many varieties are quite beautiful to look at before they are cooked.  Second, squash, when cooked, is a most satisfying vegetable.  It is not just a food.  It is a coping tool.

Squash is packed with nutrients, has rich flavor, stores well, comes in many varieties and is very versatile.  It can be used in soup, stew, bread, muffins, cake, pie, pudding, pancakes and as a side dish. It can be roasted, baked, boiled, steamed, stuffed or fried.   It can be served mashed or in chunks.  Squash loves to be combined with fruits such as apples, pears, cranberries, oranges or even prunes.  It is quite compatible with many flavors and seasonings, such as maple syrup, honey, ginger, nutmeg, sage, thyme or chile pepper.

If you think you don't like winter squash I beg you to give it another try.  I think you just have not experienced it properly prepared.  Maybe you think of it only as baby food.  Try combining it with some of your favorite foods or flavors at first.  After a while you will come to appreciate it even on its own.

Like a lot of my favorite foods, squash is a New World food, native to South and Central America.  It was unknown in the Old World until about the 1500's.  The Europeans introduced it to Asia and Africa.  In its early days, it was valued primarily for the high protein and fat content of the seeds. But over time it was bred to yield a higher proportion of flesh to seeds and today we have many fine varieties from which to choose.

Nutrition and Yields
One cup of cooked winter squash contains 150% of the minimum daily requirement of vitamin A, 30% of vitamin C and 20% of potassium, manganese, and dietary fiber.  It is also high in folate, omega 3 fatty acids,  vitamin B1 and copper.  Baked, squash has about 130 calories per cup.  Boiled, about 90.
(The variation is due to density and water content.  I got these numbers from Jane Brody and I trust her science writing.)
One pound of peeled and trimmed squash, uncooked, should yield about 2 cups cooked pieces or chunks or 1 to 1 1/2 cups mashed.

As long as we are talking about nutrition, I just have to give you this link to a recent New York Times article about a doctor with the Kaiser Permanente health care system who thinks that "some of the best public health tools we have are a sharp chef’s knife, 2 cutting boards, and a salad spinner."   I think I'm in love.  Read more about Dr. Maring and his recipes and find a link to the NYT article here.

Squash can be stored for months.  Some varieties will keep up to six months under proper conditions.  You will need to find or create a cool, dark and well ventilated space.  Ideal temperature would be from 45-50 degrees and humidity from 65 to 70 per cent.  Squash like to be in relatively dry conditions compared to vegetables like carrots or rutabagas.  Squash can also be cooked (not blanched - thoroughly cooked) and frozen very successfully.  I like to always have some frozen pureed squash on hand for quick soups or to add to breads or other baked goods.  I like to add some mashed squash into cooked polenta for extra flavor, color and nutrition.  Stir in some sauteed chard or spinach and caramelized onions,  top with some bits of your favorite cheese or even a little bacon or pancetta and you have a great simple meal in a bowl.

Squash vary greatly in size (from 1 to 50 pounds!), shape, water content, skin thickness,  flesh color, sweetness and texture.  It is worth trying different varieties to learn your favorites.  You may prefer one kind for stuffing and baking, another for purees or soups and a third for casseroles or roasting plain.
The Featherstone Farm cookbook has a great listing of various squash varieties and their attributes on pages 279 - 280.   Some of my favorites are red kuri, butternut, buttercup and delicata.

Don't let the tough outer shell of a squash deter you.  (See yesterday's post for tips on tackling squash)  With a good knife, perhaps a rubber mallet, a sturdy cutting surface and determination you will soon be dismantling squash with great proficiency.  If you have to,  find a friend or neighbor who is a "get 'er done" tool user.  I know they would be thrilled to help you whack open some squash in return for
some cooked squash.

Pumpkin and squash can be used interchangeably in almost any recipe - so if you have a favorite pumpkin recipe, try using squash instead.  Or vice versa.

Wash and dry squash and remove stem if still on the squash.  Cut squash in half lengthwise.  Scoop out seeds and stringy flesh.  (You will need a sturdy spoon or other tool for this.  No wimpy teaspoons or you will get frustrated fast.  I don't think a melon baller is the answer either.  My husband is a professional wooden spoon maker  (really).  I have put in a request for a new design made just for scooping seeds from squash and pumpkins.  I am waiting for a prototype.  Stay tuned.)

Place squash cut side down on a pan or baking dish.  Cover or put a little water in the pan or both -- you don't want the squash to dry out too much.  Some squash are drier than others.  Bake at 350 degrees until a sharp knife meets no resistance when inserted into the flesh.  If you are going to stuff the squash,  only bake until partly tender.  Then you can add the stuffing of your choice and bake cut side up until the flesh is done.

You can roast squash peeled or unpeeled.  Chunked or sliced.  If you are working with a smaller ridged variety that is time consuming to peel raw, just cut in half, scoop out seeds and then cut into 1/2 inch slices.  This is easy if you put the squash flat side down.  Roast as you would any vegetable - with a little olive oil on a baking sheet.  For squash, I think 375 degrees is a good roasting temperature.

You can peel and cut up squash into small strips or chunks and saute as you would any other vegetable.  You could heat up some olive oil,  throw in some sliced onion and peppers and a little garlic, saute for a few minutes, add some winter squash pieces (might cover a few minutes to let the steam do some work), then add some cooked pinto or other beans and some corn kernels.  This would be a great side dish or even a full meal.  You could even use for a pizza topping, with a little monterey jack grated on the top.  I am going to try this saute soon, with some roasted tomatillo salsa on the side.


Baked acorn squash
This is a classic.  Cut squash in half and scoop out seeds and stringy flesh.  Turn upside down on a baking sheet and bake at 325 degrees about 25 minutes.  Remove from oven,  and place in the cavity - for each half - 1 t. butter, 1 T. brown sugar or honey or maple syrup, a pinch of salt, pepper and nutmeg and a teaspoon or so of rum, apple or orange juice.  Bake another 20 minutes or so until done. 
Other possible stuffings:  apple or cranberry sauce, bread crumbs mixed with sauteed onion, celery, fresh herbs and a little butter and broth.  Optional additions:  cooked sausage, walnuts, raisins, mushrooms.

Cream of winter squash soup  (This makes a big batch.  Freeze some for later if you wish.)

2 T. butter
1 c. chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped fresh ginger
6 cloves garlic (fresh or roasted)
1/2 t. pepper, 1 t. salt
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup real maple syrup (or honey)
Juice and finely grated peel of one orange
2 cups low fat milk
3 pounds of squash (peeled and cooked)
Saute onions, garlic and ginger in butter about 10 minutes or until soft.  Add broth, salt and pepper and squash.  Cover and simmer about one hour.  Add syrup, orange juice and grated peel.  Cool slightly (you don't' want hot soup in a blender)   Puree, in batches, with milk in a blender or food processor.  Smooth texture is important in this dish.  Thin soup if desired with additional broth, orange juice or milk.  Gently reheat before serving.  Possible garnishes: toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds. creme fraiche, chopped apple, crumbled gingersnaps (just a little bit).

Richard Olney's Provencal Squash Gratin
Dice 2 pounds of peeled raw squash (such as butternut, kuri or hubbard)  into small pieces - no bigger than 1/4 inch.  Mix in a bowl until all pieces are well coated with 6 cloves of minced fresh garlic, 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley and  4 T. flour.  Spread squash into a well oiled 11 x 14 gratin (flat) baking dish.  Drizzle in a crisscross fashion with 1/3 cup good olive oil.    Bake at 350 degrees for about 2 hours.  A deep, rich brown crust should form.

Squash Biscuits  (adapted from Jane Brody's Good Food Gourmet)
2 cups cooked, mashed winter squash
4 T. (1/2 stick) butter, melted
1/3 cup buttermilk or yogurt
2 T. sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (you could substitute 1/4 cup of corn meal for 1/4 cup of whole wheat flour)
4 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
Mix together wet ingredients  (including squash) and dry ingredients separately.  Then stir dry ingredients into wet ingredients.  Stir until just combined into a dough.  Knead a few times on a well floured surface - dough will be soft.  Pat dough into one piece about 1/2 inch thick.  Cut into 12-15 squares with a knife and place on greased baking sheet.  Bake at 375 degrees until lightly browned - about 20 minutes.  (Note - you can also cut dough with a round biscuit cutter and re-roll scraps.  Squares are faster.)


  1. I made the butternut squash soup tonight, with a couple of changes. I left out the honey and orange zest and cut the milk by 1/2 and at the end I served it with some chopped fresh sage - YUM! It was really good with the rosemary bread we picked up from the store.

  2. I made the squash biscuits for breakfast with my girlfriends. Raves!! They were so yummy!

  3. Curcurbita Pepo or Cougarette squash (same thing apparently) It looks like zucchini but with the colors of spaghetti squash/pumpkin, the skin is a little tough too. My question is.... Do I peel the skin before cooking or does it soften and eatable after cooking?