When mounds of vibrant, odd shaped squash show up at grocery stores and farmers’ markets, it’s a sure sign of this time of year. Winter squashes are at their freshest – their sweet nutty flavor is at its best and their flesh is moist and firm. Don’t be daunted by their hard skin and unwieldy size and shape. Lurking inside is a vegetable with great nutritional value. Winter squashes are an excellent source of vitamin A and a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and folate.
Winter squash are easy to prepare, and their mild flavor and creamy texture may reward your work in the kitchen. Here’s how to get past their tough-skinned exterior and tips to turn them into something tasty.
Winter squash varieties. There are dozens of kinds of winter squash, but the ones you’re most likely to come across are butternut, acorn, pie pumpkin, delicata, kabocha, and spaghetti.
Butternut squash are tan-colored with a round bottom and long neck. The bulbous base is the only part of this squash with seeds; the neck is all flesh, so they are easy to peel and prepare. Acorn squash are dark green, and as the name implies – acorn-shaped. Because of the ribbed shape of this squash, it is difficult to peel when raw. Cook these with the peel on; the flesh is easy to scoop out of the tender skin once they are cooked.
Small pie pumpkins (also known as sugar pumpkins) look just like their larger jack-o-lantern cousins, but the flesh of these small pumpkins is less stringy, and they have a more concentrated pumpkin flavor. Delicata squash are small oval-shaped yellow squash with thin green stripes. They are more petite than most winter squash and also have edible skins, so you don’t need to peel them.
Kabocha squash are shaped like large flattened pumpkins, except they are dark green with light green streaks. You’ll often find these outsized squash cut into wedges, wrapped in plastic, and sold by the piece.
Spaghetti squash are bright yellow, oval-shaped squash with a sweeter flavor that may be appealing even to kids. Once cooked, the flesh separates into thin spaghetti-like strands. You’ll find many recipes that serve the squash topped with a marinara sauce, just as you would with spaghetti pasta. It’s a lower carb option, too – there are only 10 grams of carbs in 1 cup of cooked squash compared to 40 grams of carbs in 1 cup of cooked pasta. I also like spaghetti squash as a side dish, simply tossed with a little olive oil and a sprinkle of a fresh herb such as parsley, thyme, or oregano.
How to buy and store. When selecting winter squash, choose specimens with the stem attached (bacteria can enter if the stem is removed), and ones with hard, unblemished skin (soft skin may be a sign of immaturity or decay). Whole winter squash will keep for four to six months if stored at room temperature. Once the squash is cut, wrap any unused pieces in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to four to five days.
How to prepare and cook. Winter squash, especially larger ones, do require some care in preparation. Carefully use a knife with a long blade or a cleaver to cut the squash into large chunks. For smaller squash, such as acorn, pie pumpkin, delicata, and spaghetti, you can cut the squash in half lengthwise. Use a spoon to scrape out the seeds and connective tissue. It’s easier to cook winter squash with the peel on. Once cooked, you can simply scrape the flesh from the skin with a spoon.
To bake winter squash, place the pieces or halves cut side down in a lightly greased baking pan and bake at 375°F until the squash is tender when pierced with a knife, about thirty-five to sixty minutes depending on the size and thickness of the squash. To steam it, place the squash pieces or halves in a steamer basket, cover and steam over simmering water until tender, about twenty to thirty minutes, depending on the type and size of the squash. Let the squash cool, then scrape the flesh away from the skin with a spoon. You can serve the soft flesh as is, or for a smoother puree, pulse it in the food processor. Add a bit of olive oil, fresh or dried herbs (try sage or rosemary), or a pinch of cloves, cinnamon, or nutmeg.
Even if you think you don’t like winter squash, try roasting it and see how it tastes! The flavor and sweetness concentrate, making it (to me) irresistibly delicious! To roast squash, depending on the size, cut it into large pieces or in half lengthwise, remove the seeds, and peel it using a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Then cut the squash into 3/4-inch pieces. For acorn squash, leave the peel on, and cut it into 3/4-inch wedges. Place the squash in a large baking pan and toss it with a small amount of olive oil. You can also toss in minced garlic and fresh or dried herbs such as sage, rosemary, or thyme. Arrange the squash in a single layer and bake at 400°F, turning once, until the squash is tender and lightly browned, thirty-five to forty minutes. You can use this method for any winter squash except spaghetti squash.
Cooked squash stores well. Place it in an airtight container and refrigerate for as long as four to five days or freeze for up to a year. Use it as a side dish, for making soup, or in any recipe that calls for canned pumpkin, such as pies or quick breads. When preparing as a leftover, you can reheat the squash in the microwave or in a nonstick skillet over medium heat.
If you want to skip all the cutting, seeding, and peeling, look for recipe-ready butternut squash cubes in plastic containers in the produce section of large supermarkets. They make it even easier to prepare and enjoy winter squash.
As always when cooking, make sure to include both the main ingredient and anything you add in, such as olive oil, into the total carb and calorie counts that fit into your meal plan. Olive oil has 119 calories and 0 carbs per tablespoon. Herbs and spices add flavor, but zero calories or carbs.
I like winter squash for their taste and nutritional value – give them a try in your kitchen this season and see what you think!
Jackie Mills is the author of 1,000 Diabetes Recipes and The Big Book of Diabetic Desserts. She is also a food writer and registered dietitian who develops recipes for such national magazines as Cooking Light and Family Circle as well as for books such as The American Medical Association Type 2 Diabetes Cookbook. She was formerly the food editor at Redbook magazine. Mills is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience