What’s your favorite squash?

Squash (Photo provided — Yvona Fast)

Thanksgiving will be here before you know it — and bright orange winter squash is both a holiday and a seasonal tradition. Sweet or savory, mashed or roasted, bright orange winter squash makes a delicious side dish for turkey. Squash and pumpkin (a type of squash) were probably served at the original 1621 Thanksgiving feast of venison, turkey, waterfowl and fish.

Sweet winter squash in a myriad of colors, shapes, and sizes, is one of the flavors we associate with autumn. Although there are subtle differences in flavor and texture, most varieties of winter squash can be used interchangeably in recipes.

The most common winter squash is the tan, vase-shaped butternut. It has the thinnest skin, so it’s the easiest to use. It is soft enough to chop, and thus more versatile. Most people peel the skin with a vegetable peeler; but depending on the recipe, I find this task optional.

My favorite squash is delicate. It is more tender than even the butternut, so it needs less cooking. And it’s pretty: thin and long, with an orange and green striped shell. Because delicata are smaller than other winter squash varieties, they’re easier to bring home from the market, and easier to handle, prepare and cook. A sharp knife will cut through easily.

Like the butternut, they are easy to clean, and don’t require peeling. Their texture is creamier than butternut, and their flavor is rich. While most often roasted or baked, they can be sauteed, steamed or microwaved. Delicata are good with fresh herbs, and accommodates both spicy and sweet seasonings.

To prepare delicata, rinse the squash under running water, and use a soft brush to scrub away any clinging dirt. If you find hard spots, use a butter knife to scrape them off. Lay the squash on a cutting board, and cut it in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Scrape out the seeds and fibers with a spoon. (You can save the seeds and prepare like you would pumpkin seeds – roast them with salt and other seasonings. They make a great snack food and take just 15 to 20 minutes to roast at 160 to 170 degrees

There are many varieties of winter squash – many more than their tender summer cousins. In addition to butternut and delica, acorn squash is common for baking and stuffing. The spaghetti squash forms strands (hence the name) rather than a pulp. Hubbards are the largest squashes, varying in color; they’re the size of pumpkins, but with ridges. They’re best roasted for their dry, light, mild-tasting pulp. Kabocha, with a deep green shell and dry, flaky, light, mild flesh, is a favorite among connoisseurs. Sweet dumpling is sweet and — uhm – shaped like a dumpling.

Squash is a concentrated food, a nutritional powerhouse. They’re delicate and easy to digest, so are often used as a first solid food for babies.

All winter squash are complex carbohydrate vegetables, rich in both carbohydrates and natural sugars. Studies have shown that the polysaccharide carbs in winter squash help with insulin regulation, helping to combat diabetes. They also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Nutritionally, they’re high in fiber, vitamin A, potassium, magnesium, manganese and some B vitamins.

All squashes are botanically a fruit. They belong to the Cucurbitaceae family, along with cucumbers, gourds and melons.

Squashes originated in Mexico and Central America, and were probably the first food cultivated by the Indians, even before corn and beans. They have been an important food staple for 8,000 years. Squash seeds dating to between 9,000 and 4,000 B.C have been found at archeological digs in Mexico. The colonists learned how to use squash from the Indians, and early explorers brought them to Europe.

Modern squash varieties developed from the wild squash native to Central America. Although most plentiful in autumn, winter squash will keep for weeks if stored in a cool, dark, dry place. But don’t refrigerate it; temperatures below 50 degrees will cause chilling injuries. And dry, hot air will cause it to loose moisture.

Winter squash are easy to cook, and can be prepared in a variety of ways – roasting, steaming, and boiling are the most common. All squashes blend well with onions and mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese, sausage, eggs, and a variety of herbs from basil and parsley to dill and marjoram. Because it’s mildly sweet and slightly nutty, it pairs well with tart or sharp flavors, like citrus, pungent greens or hot peppers. Squashes can be combined in casseroles, soups, stir-fries and baked goods. Now that tomatoes are no longer in season, top a salad of fresh greens with cubes of roasted squash, diced apple and toasted walnuts.

This time of year, squashes are abundant and relatively inexpensive. Large squashes can make several meals, so plan accordingly or freeze some.

Use some of the roasted squash in the recipes below. If your Thanksgiving feast includes vegetarians, squash can be more than a side dish; a casserole like squash and kale gratin can easily be served as a main course. Other main course options are stuffed baked squash or squash lasagna.

Roasted Delicata Squash

Good with roast meat, like roast chicken. There are many options in this basic recipe. For a larger crowd — like a holiday gathering – you will need several delicates, or use a larger squash variety.

Ingredients:

1 or 2 delicata squash (depending on size)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1 clove garlic

1 teaspoon salt

Fresh herbs, like oregano, thyme, parsley

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Wash squash (peeling optional). Cut in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Remove seeds and membranes.

Lay each half with the shell up, and cut into 1/2 inch slices, creating moon-shaped pieces. Arrange these in a single layer on a rimmed cookie sheet or baking pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, and toss to coat. Then sprinkle lightly with salt and crush some garlic onto it.

Place in the oven, and roast until soft, stirring and turning over the pieces every 10 minutes or so with a spatula. Roast 25 to 40 minutes, or until squash is tender and creamy when pierced with a fork, and the pieces are golden brown on the edges. Sprinkle with fresh herbs during last 5 minutes of roasting. Taste, and adjust the salt if needed.

Serves 2 as a side dish.

Note: To roast a larger squash, like a butternut, cut into 3/4 – 1″ cubes.

Note: Try different seasonings. Possibilities include paprika or curry powder; maple syrup or honey; Parmesan cheese; fresh herbs like parsley, sage, thyme, or rosemary. Toasted nuts, onions or shallots sauteed in butter make a great garnish to top your roasted squash.

Simple Sauteed Delicata

This can be a side dish or a main dish by adding smoked ham or toasted nuts.

Ingredients:

2 small delicata squash

1 onion

1 clove garlic

1 Tablespoon olive oil

Slat & pepper

1 apple

2 cups diced cooked ham

Several leaves (1 cup) torn arugula, kale, spinach or fresh parsley greens, optional

1 to 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Prepare squash. Wash and cut in half lengthwise with a sharp knife. Remove seeds and membranes. Place cut side down on cutting board, and cut into 1/2 inch slices, creating moon-shaped pieces. Set aside.

Peel and dice the onion. Set aside.

Peel and mince the garlic. Set aside.

In a large skillet with lid, heat oil. Add onion; sprinkle with salt & pepper. Cover and cook on low about 5 minutes. Add reserved squash and garlic; stir, and cook another 5 minutes. Add apple, greens, (and ham, if using); continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until squash is tender. If it gets too dry, moisten with apple cider or broth.

Taste; adjust seasonings if needed. Sprinkle with cider vinegar and serve hot as a side or as a main course with a side of potatoes or over pasta.

For a vegetarian main course, omit ham and top each serving with toasted walnuts.

Serves three to four, depending on size of squash.

Author of the award-winning cookbook Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market, Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook as Author

Yvona Fast.

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