I may not love the excesses of the holidays, but I do love cooking this time of year. Ideally the weather is chilly enough to make us crave warm, earthy dishes, rich in the nutrients we need to sustain ourselves through the cold, dark winter. There’s a lot to be said for eating seasonally – not only does it make more sense to eat what’s available right now (or to preserve it for later), but nature magically gives us exactly what our bodies need. In the case of winter squash, that’s a lot.
A large component of our winter storage pantry.
Edible squashes are in the curcubit family and essentially fit into two categories: summer and winter. Summer squashes include the thin-skinned varieties, like commonly available green zucchini and yellow squash. Winter squashes don’t ripen until late summer and early fall, then must be cured for extended storage. Most winter squashes are encased in a hard, protective skin, allowing them to be kept for months without refrigeration. As with other long-keeping vegetables (onions, potatoes, root crops), this comes in handy when there isn’t much else around to eat and you can’t just run to the store.
From left: delicata, red Kuri, acorn, carnival (a type of acorn), butternut and sugar pumpkin.
Winter squash are extremely nutritious. They’re rich in vitamin C, vitamin B6, fiber, manganese, and copper. They’re also excellent sources of beta-carotene, vitamins B2 and B3, folate, vitamin K, potassium and magnesium. Plus, they’re delicious and lend themselves to all sorts of sweet and savory preparations.
Grocery stores are now stocking a much more impressive selection of winter squash, and the value is tough to beat. They’re rarely more than a dollar or so per pound, and you can get a lot of mileage out of a single winter squash. If you’ve got access to local farms you can usually buy it even cheaper, and store it through the winter.
A recent CSA pick-up included a gigantic ‘Cinderella’ pumpkin (rouge vif d’etampes).
With their unwieldy shape and thick skin, winter squashes can be a bit difficult to tackle. Plenty of grocery stores have realized this and sell pre-cut squash in hermetically sealed plastic trays; as always, you’ll save a lot of money if you do the work yourself. If you’re going to make the effort to roast a pumpkin or dice a few cubes of butternut for a recipe, prep the entire thing and freeze the remainder for future cooking.
The absolute easiest way to cook any winter squash is to halve or quarter it, remove the seeds (don’t throw the seeds away!) and roast until tender in a 450 degree oven with generous amounts of olive oil, salt and pepper. Serrated bread knives are typically the easiest way to wrangle winter squash; because the vegetables are oddly shaped, it’s important to give yourself a flat surface on which to stabilize the squash, so cut a little slice off one side. Don’t bother dicing the squash if you’re going to puree it; just roast it until tender and scrape out the seasoned flesh.
Delicata is one of our favorites; its thin skin is edible and it is absolutely delicious charred in a hot pan (here with red onion).
If you’re struggling to even cut the beast open – kabocha is particularly challenging – pierce it a couple of times with a thin-bladed knife or sharp skewer, then microwave it for a few minutes to soften the flesh and make it easier to work with. Don’t forget the piercing part; winter squash can easily explode in a microwave if they’re not vented. This is not pretty.
Spicy, warming soup with quinoa, chickpeas and butternut.
Some winter squashes, like butternut, yield easily to a vegetable peeler and can then be cut into neat cubes for soups, curries and pastas. Winter squashes are virtually interchangeable in recipes (except for spaghetti squash, which splits into noodle-like strands), so use what you have; all are great for creamy purees, gratins and soups. Squash works well with bold flavors, like curry, coconut milk and chilies, and the flesh will bulk up any dish. Use with abandon and be generous with the seasoning; that sweet flesh can stand up to a heavy hand with the salt and pepper.
If you eat oatmeal or other hearty porridges in the winter, add some cooked winter squash, drizzle with maple syrup or honey, and sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds. Including high-fiber vegetables in your breakfast starts the day off right.
The pumpkin seeds (or pepitas) you typically buy in the store probably come from squash grown just for their seeds; they may be sold with the white hull, or just the small green seed on its own. Either way, the seeds are delicious as a garnish on soups and salads and a great healthy snack. It’s easy to make your own from any winter squash, not just pumpkin, though the seeds might be much smaller. Once you’ve scraped the seeds out, rinse well to remove any stringy bits of flesh, then let dry on a paper towel to remove excess moisture.
When dry, toss with oil, salt, pepper and any other seasonings (try curry powder or cumin or cinnamon) and toast on a sheet pan in a 300 degree oven until lightly golden (maybe twenty to thirty minutes, depending on quantity). Seeds will continue to crisp as they cool; store at room temperature in an airtight container.
Pumpkin-oatmeal muffins with chocolate chunks.
Do you have any favorite ways of preparing winter squash? Please share in the comments below!