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All About Winter Squashes and Pumpkins

Winter Squash recipes

Pumpkins and squashes, like their cousins the melons and cucumbers, are berries, and they are not just for decoration. Italian recipes do wondrous things with pumpkin as well as other winter squashes, all of which are called zucca. Edible parts of the winter squash plant are the blossoms, fruit, seeds and tender new growth, stem ends and tender leaves (obtained if you cut back the plants to produce fewer but larger fruit). Winter squash can also be eaten in the immature state like summer squash, if picked when the skins are still tender enough to puncture with a fingernail.

All varieties of winter squash are great for puréeing, steaming, roasting and baking. Once squash is cooked, it can be served in slices, used in soups, main dishes, vegetable side dishes, or mashed for breads, muffins, custards and pies. Try using winter squash anywhere you would use potatoes. Add peeled squash cubes to your favorite soups, stews, beans, gratins and vegetable ragouts. Mix cooked spaghetti squash with Parmesan and eggs and fry in cakes to make delicious low carb hash browns. Dress any cooked winter squash with butter and herbs, a nut or cream sauce, cheese sauce, maple syrup and nuts, marinara sauce or stewed fruit. Or stuff the squash with any rice or bread stuffing.

Winter squash matures on the vine and develops an inedible, thick, hard rind and tough seeds. Although helpful for storage, this rind makes most winter squash difficult to peel raw. It's easier to cook the unpeeled squash, and then cut or scoop out the cooked flesh. The seeds can be scooped out before or after cooking. To cut a raw winter squash in half, anchor the squash firmly and use a sharp knife to start the cut, going just through the one side to the center. Then flip and cut the other side until the squash falls open. Remove the seeds by scraping with a large spoon. If you don't want to struggle with cutting a large, thick-skinned squash, partially bake the whole squash ahead of time at 375 degrees for a half hour or so. When cool, it will cut more easily. Also, it's easier to scoop out the seeds from a partially or fully cooked squash than a raw one.

Quantities needed

For very large squashes, estimate one-third pound per person, medium squashes you need about 1/2 pound, and small 3/4 to 1 pound each. One medium-size (15 to 20 pounds) pumpkin will yield 5 to 7 quarts of cooked pumpkin. For most larger winter squash, 1 pound of whole squash makes just over 1 cup of puree. 1 pound of peeled, trimmed squash makes just under 2 cups cooked squash. For freezing or canning, 3 pounds untrimmed squash provides about 2 pints frozen puree, 4-5 servings.

The exception is spaghetti squash. One pound of raw spaghetti squash makes just under 4 cups cooked strings, loosely packed.

How to Select and Cure Winter Squash

A good winter squash feels heavy and full. A light large-sized squash may have a large seed cavity and less meat than you expect. A light winter squash may also be one whose innards have begun to dry out. Look for sturdy, heavy winter squash with fairly glossy skin, but not too shiny, unblemished by soft spots, cuts, breaks or uncharacteristic discolorations, especially around the stem end. Look for ones with a smooth, tough, dry skin and intense color. Avoid cracked squashes or ones with decayed areas

If you want to keep your full grown pumpkin or winter squash for eating or decoration, it needs to be cured. Place them on shelves or screens so air can circulate around them in a cool place (50 to 55°F). When they are cured and mature, a thumbnail pressed into the flesh of the pumpkin or winter squash won’t break the skin. Matured, they keep for several months.

For storage, if the squashes are picked too early they will not store well nor be as sweet. When mature, the stem of the fruit is dry and hard and the same is true for the squash itself, before harvesting. The stem should be completely dry and a good inch long for proper storage. If you press a finger nail into the skin of the mature squash, it should be hard to penetrate and no moisture will form in the indentation.

Freezing before harvest, or refrigerating whole squashes below 40 degrees will alter their flavor and texture, so it's not recommended for storage. Symptoms of chilling injury are sunken pits on the surface and high levels of decay once fruit are removed from storage. Storing fruit 1 month at 5°C (41°F) is sufficient to cause chilling injury symptoms. Depending on the squash, storage for several months at 10°C (50°F) may cause some chilling injury.

To store cured winter squashes, place squash on top of thick pads of newspapers in a dark, cool, dry, well-ventilated location. Check on a regular basis for rot, especially around the stem, turning occasionally. Acorn squash quality begins to diminish within two or three weeks. Larger squashes stored at 50 to 59 degrees F. with 75% humidity will keep 2 to 6 months depending on variety, and will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 weeks. Don't store squashes near apples or pears, which give off ethylene gas, and will spoil the squashes.

Ideas for Cooking and Using Winter Squash

Be sure to use up cooked prepared squash or pumpkin puree within two days of refrigeration because it quickly grows fuzzy mold on the surface. If that happens, discard it. To store longer, divide it into usable amounts in zipper freezer bags with air removed, and freeze the puree. Then just take out a bag and make some Pumpkin and Red Pepper Pasta Sauce. Or stir it into chili, use for cookies, quick breads or pancakes, in gingerbread mix, even bottled marinara sauce for an invisible boost of fiber and extra vitamins.

For larger squashes, I like to stick with roasting or oven baking. The flavor develops better, and they cook more evenly. To bake a whole small winter squash, split it or pierce the rind with a fork and bake cut side down in a 350-degree oven 45 minutes or until a fork can easily pierce the flesh. To serve you can turn the squash right side up, brush with a buttery sauce or stuff with rice pilaf and bake an additional 15 minutes. Boil or steam quarters or rings 25 minutes or until tender.

To steam, cut squash into small cubes and steam for 20 minutes. You may also peel it after cooking if you wait until it cools. Once cooked, the pulp may be mashed with a fork or blended.

To microwave, always cut up the squash. Place halves or quarters, cut side down, in a shallow dish; add 1/4 cup water. Cover tightly and microwave on HIGH 6 minutes per pound. NEVER microwave a whole squash, especially spaghetti squash: they can explode!

About canned pumpkin. This product has some of the water cooked out to thicken the puree. If you try to substitute home-sooked squash or pumpkin, you will have to cook it thicker, and it LOVES to scorch. Stir often uncovered over very low heat and be prepared to decrease the usual liqid in your recipe.

Squash varieties

Need pictures? Here are photos of many winter squashes an offsite garden side trip

The sweetest varieties of the hard-skinned “winter” squashes are Delicata, Hubbard and butternut, and the Kabucha (mottled green) pumpkin.

Butternut or buttercup/ Turban and Hubbard squash have fairly dry flesh, so they taste best sauced or used in soups, stews and gratins. Butternut squash and its cousin buttercup/ turban have mildly sweet flavor and are high in beta carotene and Vitamin A, Butternut, a squash with a bulbous end and pale, creamy skin, has a choice, fine-textured, deep-orange flesh with a sweet, nutty flavor. It weighs from 2 to 5 pounds. Because its skin is thinner and lighter in color than those of other winter squash, butternut may be cooked and pureed with its skin intact. This saves preparation time as well as increasing nutritional value.

Turban squash, with a bulblike cap swelling from its blossom end, come in bizarre shapes with extravagant coloration that makes them popular as harvest ornamentals. Larger varieties are better to look at than to eat. The smaller, dark green buttercup has a nutty, sweet, deep orange flesh with a mealy texture that is good for pies. Cook turban, similar to buttercup, in any way that the larger Hubbard is prepared.

Delicata, also called Bohemian squash, is a 1 to 2 pound oblong. The edible skin is cream-colored with stripes that vary in color from green to orange. Compared to other winter squash, the delicata has (as its name suggests) a more delicate flavor. Its yellow flesh is moist and creamy when steamed and suggests the sweetness of sweet corn. The delicata is a good source of Vitamin A. Sugar Loaf looks like a delicata, but with a slightly squatter shape and an edible tan-colored skin with green stripes. It is mildly sweet; a good choice for one- or two-person meals

A small acorn squash weighs from 1 to 3 pounds, and has sweet, slightly fibrous flesh. Its distinct ribs run the length of its hard, blackish-green or golden-yellow skin. Compared to a butternut squash, the acorn's flesh is more fibrous, blander and less sweet and a bit drier. Golden acorn is a sweeter, smoother cousin of the green variety.

Red Kuri is a brilliant dark orange squash with a flattened, round shape and a small top knot. Weighs about 3 to 5 pounds. It has a sweet taste, with a smooth, slightly dry texture.

Spaghetti squash is a bright, light yellow oval squash that has a mild nutty taste and a unique texture. It ranges in size from 2 to 5 pounds or more. This spaghetti-like texture makes it a particularly satisfying vegetable to eat. When cooked, the flesh of spaghetti squash can be pulled apart to form slender strands that resemble pasta. Spaghetti squash is the only winter squash that cannot be substituted for mashed, cooked winter squash in other recipes. After puncturing the skin, bake 45 minutes at 350 degrees, turn, bake 15-45 minutes longer until the skin "gives" to finger pressure.

Pumpkin is usually thought of first as a pie, then as a soup, but it can be substituted in any recipe calling for winter squash. The kabucha (ka-BOO-cha) pumpkin looks like a mottled, dark green pumpkin and has the highest sugar content of any squash. It is similar to buttercup squash but has a drier texture that crumbles if overcooked. The skin is also edible. Tiny pumpkins are easy to stuff, and kids and adults alike love their sweet, mild flavor- just make sure they have NOT been lacquered or treateted for decorative purposes! Cut off the top and removed seeds the same way you would a jack o'lantern. For savory flavors, stuff with sauted cooked rice, bread stuffing, chopped chicken, tempeh, or marinated tofu with herbs. Serve topped with mushroom gravy. Or try sweet stuffings of sauteed apples or pears with currants, walnuts or almonds, and a touch of maple syrup. Bake stuffed mini pumpkins at 375° for an hour.

Sweet Dumpling is a small, mildly sweet-tasting squash resembles a miniature pumpkin with its top pushed in. It has a rich, nutty flavor. Its skin is pale yellow and ribbed with dark green stripes.

Hubbard, banana squash and pumpkin are the giants, ranging from 9 to 70 pounds. Pumpkin, the most famous of all winter squash, can even grow to several hundred pounds. Hubbard squash averages about 12 pounds with a thick bumpy skin from dark-green to deep-orange and yellow-orange flesh. Banana squash, popular in Middle Eastern cooking, is usually sold in cut pieces, as it averages 10 to15 pounds. Banana squash grows up to two feet in length and about six inches in diameter. Its bright orange, finely-textured flesh is sweet. Banana squash also makes a great base/ thickener and sweetener for winter vegetable soups (with cabbage, potatoes, onion, turnip, celery, and whatever else is in the fridge).

All Seasons squash, named for its exceptional storing capabilities, can last into summer. It resembles a small, ribless pumpkin with a pronounced blossom end.