When you think of the bounty of the autumn harvest, the colourful globes that we know as squash - or more specifically winter squash - immediately spring to mind. After all, what is fall without pumpkin pie, butternut squash soup and carved jack-o-lanterns?
Our relationship with this delicious and versatile fruit stretches back almost 10,000 years. Originating in the Americas, archaeological evidence suggests that squash was first cultivated in Mesoamerica functioning as a major part of Native American agriculture. Winter squash was one of the three sister crops of maize, beans and squash, which provided the backbone of pre-Columbian agriculture. Our word ‘squash’ is a derivative of the Narragansett word askutasquash, which means ‘green thing eaten raw.’
Squash comes from the genus Cucurbita of the gourd family Cucurbitaceae that includes flowering plants such as cucumbers and melons.
We tend group squash into two categories, based on their time of harvest. Summer squash, which are harvested in their immature states, have softer skin and seeds (think zucchini and pattypan) and winter, which are fully matured have tough and mottled rinds and can be stored for long periods of time after harvest (like butternut, acorn and pumpkin).
Not only are winter squash extremely versatile from a culinary standpoint, they are also high in vitamins A and C as well as iron, niacin and riboflavin.
Common Types of Squash
One of the most ubiquitous of the squashes, the butternuts sweet flavour and creamy texture makes it excellent roasted and in soups and is good starter-squash for newbies.
This heirloom breed can reach up to six pounds and is used as both a vegetable and an ornamental gourd. Known as the most beautiful, but most lacking in flavour.
Not to be confused with the butternut, this large specimen has deep green skin and dark orange flesh, and its flavour profile is closer akin to a sweet potato than a squash. It is high in vitamin A and often paired with maple syrup.
One of the smallest of the eaten winter squashes, the sweet dumpling has a lighter colour and more mellow flavour. Because of its size it is often served stuffed with meat, grains or vegetables.
Less sweet than its counterparts, the flesh is long and noodle-like and takes well to savoury spices, tomato and butter.
Available in red, blue or green colours this tear dropped shaped squash is often used as a substitute for pumpkin in pies or soups.
Long and slender, the potato squash is reminisced of a sweet potato in flavour, and can even be used to make ‘fries’ when cut into matchsticks and baked.
Also known as a pepper squash, this small squash is actually part of the summer squash family along with zucchini and pattypans. Like the sweet dumpling, its small size lends itself to being served stuffed.
How to Pick
Picking a squash can be tricky. Although they may all look richly coloured- and similar -there are a few things to keep in mind. Select a squash that is brightly coloured and heavy. It’s normal for one side of the squash to have a pale spot, this is where it rested on the ground while growing, just make sure it isn’t green. The stem should be dry, but intact and the surface of the squash should be matte and sturdy. A shiny and delicate surface means it was picked too early.
How to Store
In the right conditions, squash can be stored for months. In the case of the Hubbard, up to half a year! The key is to maintain the right conditions. The most important factor is to keep the skin intact and blemish-free. Scratches or nicks encourage pests and mold. Squash should be kept in a cool place, about 50-55F, and should be sheltered from moisture and provided with good ventilation.
How to Prepare
Squashes are dense, which means you can easily hurt yourself when trying to cut or chop. Be sure to use a large knife that is well sharpened. Investing in a tabletop knife sharpener is a good idea.
How to Cook
While like with most produce there are endless ways to cook squash, but the easiest, most mess-free and involving as little hazardous chopping as possible is to roast it. Simply cut your desires squash down the middle and roast cut side down on a baking sheet at 350-400F for about 45 minutes. This will render and soft and easily scooped out, useable for most any recipe.