Winter Squash | The Flavor of Fall
We call it “winter” squash, but that’s a misnomer. Like most vegetables, the butternuts, acorns, Hubbards, and delicatas piled on shelves at this time of year are planted and picked during the warm growing season–we just eat them in the winter. They’re close cousins of the zucchini and pattypans overwhelming your garden in July and August–all are members of the Cucurbita genus–though the relationship is akin to that of green bell peppers and red. Summer squashes are picked when young and immature, when seeds and skins are still tender. Winter squashes are fully grown–picked in September and October–with seeds ready for planting and thick skins that keep them fresh and edible well into winter.
That long tenure on the vine provides more than a hard shell; it also gives the flesh time to develop the sugars and the rich, warm color that is these squashes’ glory. Packed into all those bright-orange cells are alpha and beta carotenes, lutein, zeaxanthin, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Winter squash isn’t just delicious and comforting–it’s perfectly good for you. And versatile, too: Cook it down into soups, fold it into pastas, toss it in salads, or simply roast it with a bit of oil and salt until golden-brown (450* is a good temperature). The only real challenge is removing that thick rind–a task made easier by a good, sharp peeler or a paring knife. But the skins of some varieties, like kabocha and delicata, are tender enough to be eaten when cooked.
Like most cultivated fruits–and, botanically speaking, squashes are actually fruits–the first varieties didn’t arrive in their present delectable form. Native to Mexico and Central America, they were prized more for their edible seeds than their bitter, meager flesh. It took time for them to be selected and hybridized into varieties that were sweet and abundant. Christopher Columbus introduced the first squashes to Europe; soon other explorers were bringing the seeds to farther-flung destinations. Today, exotic varieties like the smooth-fleshed kabocha–a Cambodian native–are returning to the Americas and gaining ground on local favorites such as ‘Waltham Butternut’, which was bred at the University of Massachusetts Field Station in Waltham, Massachusetts, and still dominates the market.
This ancient fruit has come full circle. Its season is long, but there’s no better time to enjoy it than fall, when our cravings turn from tomatoes and corn to something heartier. The following recipes–which range from a a rich pasta alla vodka to a Thai-inspired stir-fry with chicken to a simple squash-and-spinach salad to a “spaghetti” that grows in your garden–are proof of its versatility. Enjoy it now. As the growing season comes to an end, this is nature’s sweetest goodbye.