by Sandra Brandt
Visit any farmers’ market in late summer or fall and you can take in an eyeful of multi-coloured squashes of many shapes and sizes. Pumpkins are the type of squash most familiar to us, but it pays to explore and play around with the variety of tastes and textures offered by this whimsical looking fruit of the vine.
As a bicycle shopper, I like to load up all my saddle bags and backpack for a trip to the market during squash season, and carry home as many as I can each time. A pickup truck might be a better idea, if you seriously want to stock up for the winter. Or perhaps you have a nice big sunny garden space to devote to growing this wonderfully productive plant.
Summer squashes like zucchini, the most commonly known kind, and also crookneck and patty pan squashes, are picked before maturity, at the height of summer gardening season. They have soft shells which are eaten along with the flesh, and edible seeds embedded in the flesh. Zucchini is especially popular in Italian and Mediterranean dishes. If not picked before maturity, they either rot, or they become pulpy, hard shelled, and often more hollow inside.
Winter squashes, that mature later in the season, feature lots of edible flesh, have tougher shells that are mostly inedible, and the seeds are located in a separated chamber inside the squash. They can be kept throughout the winter if stored in dry cool conditions and checked regularly to make sure that none have succumbed to deterioration that could spread to others. A variety of winter squashes also makes a great fall- or Thanksgiving-themed display or centrepiece.
Squash is native to the Americas. After 1500 AD, European traders transported seeds back to their home countries, and from there they have spread throughout the world. Squashes are related to other fleshy, seedy, shelled fruits like melons, gourds, and cucumbers. In Central America, corn, beans, and squash were often grown as companion plants, called the Three Sisters. The corn provides a tall stalk for the beans to climb, while the beans transfer nitrogen from the air to the soil on which the corn plant feasts. The large flat squash leaves provide a shady ground cover which discourages weeds and helps keep moisture in the soil. “It was pure agricultural brilliance, and the reason these three humble plants play such a large part in so many Native American myths and legends. They believed that since they were so magical when grown together, that they should also be eaten together. They also believed that since they protected each other while growing, that they would protect whoever ate them together.” (americanfood.about.com)
Although winter squashes exhibit such a wealth of variety in colour, size, and texture, they do tend to fall into a few handy categories that can help us choose the best kind to use for various culinary purposes. Some are more watery after cooking, others are dense fleshed, and some have stringy flesh. Some are notably sweeter than others. (For descriptions and pictures of different types, check the references at the end of this article.) Always choose squashes that are firm and a good weight for their size. Although classified as a fruit, squashes are normally eaten as a vegetable.
The first step with any winter squash is to cook it. It can be chopped, peeled, and then steamed, or added to any dish such as stew, soup, or a baked dish by itself or with other vegetables. For an easier approach, simply cut the squash in half, either lengthwise or around the equator, turn the two halves upside down on a baking sheet and bake until soft. (If the rind is too tough to cut, it can be softened by microwaving the whole uncut squash on high for a couple of minutes, or baking for about 20 minutes, or until the shell softens.) The seedy part can be scooped out either before or after baking. Baking times vary considerably depending on size, density, etc. When done, the flesh can be scooped out of the shells and used in many recipes. If the squash is too large to use all at once, the flesh can be divided into containers and frozen for convenient use in soups and baked goods. The flesh can also be pureed for a smoother texture if desired. The seeds are usually discarded, but can also be roasted separately and salted to make a healthy crunchy snack.
Most squashes yield a nice mild tasting vegetable dish on their own, either mashed or served in chunks, with butter, salt, perhaps a little lemon juice, and possibly added herbs or spices for extra flavour.
Spaghetti squash is known for its creamy yellowish, stringy flesh which, when cooked, can be served in any way you would actually use spaghetti.
The heavier and sweeter the squash, the better for making pies, muffins, cakes, and other baked treats. They also add more flavour and heartiness when added to main dishes. For density and sweetness, kabocha is my top choice, with buttercup, butternut, and sugar pie pumpkin (much smaller than the large, mostly hollow Hallowe’en pumpkins) also very nice. Delicata and sweet dumpling can also be quite sweet, but somewhat more watery.
Three Sisters Mexican Squash Soup
Saute: chopped garlic, onion
Add and stir a bit longer:
2 or more tsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp unrefined salt
2 cups cooked or baked, and then mashed, winter squash
4 cups broth or water
2 cups cooked drained beans
2 cups corn kernels (fresh or frozen)
Simmer together for at least 20 minutes to blend flavours, making sure corn is tender if using fresh kernels.
Serve with garnishes such as fresh cilantro, salsa, or fresh chopped tomatoes, chopped or roasted red peppers, sour cream, etc.
Combine with food processor or electric mixer:
1-1/2 cup mashed pumpkin/winter squash
(or one 398 ml can of pumpkin)
1 250g tub cream cheese
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp each cloves, ginger, nutmeg
1/4 cup or more sweetener (honey/maple syrup/unrefined sugar, etc.) Sweeten to taste.
Makes an excellent dip for sliced apples or pears.
Squash and Seed Cake (adapted from American Wholefoods Cuisine)
Combine and let sit for 7 to 12 hours:
1/3 cup butter or coconut oil
1 cup cooked mashed sugar pie pumpkin or any winter squash
1 cup whole grain flour
6 tbsp molasses/honey
Grind together and add to batter:
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp unrefined salt
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp stevia powder (optional)
1/3 cup dried cranberries or raisins
Spread batter in greased 8x8 cake pan.
1/4 cup coarsely-chopped pumpkin seeds
2 tsp unrefined sugar ((you can put the seeds and sugar in a plastic bag and pound them with a meat pounder)
Sprinkle over cake batter in pan.
Bake cake at 350ºF about 20–25 minutes, or until firm in center.
americanfood.about.com/od/nativeamericanfoods/a/3sis.htm (types of squash)
whatscookingamerica.net/squash.htm (types of squash)
American Wholefoods Cuisine, Nikki and David Goldbeck, Plume Books, 1984
Sandra Brandt has had a lifelong interest in whole natural foods. She lives in Regina, where she gives cooking classes, presentations, and dietary consultations. She can be reached by email: email@example.com. Also see the colour display ad on page 13 of the 19.3 September/October issue of the WHOLifE Journal.