by Teri Pizza
As a natively grown vegetable cultivated by the Wampanoag Indians, squash occupies a special place in American history. Today, they’re conceived as the green or yellow vegetables vaguely resembling cucumbers; the uniquely shaped gourds that signal a coming Halloween and Thanksgiving. Yet this uniquely beloved crop far precedes the fall holidays of modern folk; in fact it’s very name is derived from a Native American word used by the Narragansett tribe: Askutasquash.
Part of the Cucurbitaceae family, with fellow members including melons, pumpkins, gourds and cucumbers, squash come in many shapes, colors and sizes – and their looks can be deceiving – squash is technically a fruit! Then there’s the “winter/summer” idiom which should probably be more like “soft/hard” since the peel of summer squash is thin and tasty (think zucchini) while its siblings – winter squash and the like – have hard, thick inedible skin. Winter squash actually got its nickname from the common practice of hanging the fruit out in cool, dark root cellars until winter ergo, “winter squash”.
Although originally harvested in America, it was greatly popularized by Eastern Europeans who were exposed to its dried seeds by returning explorers from the “New World.” Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt or at least indifference. As the turn of the century has brought a new conscientiousness about the food we put in our bodies, Americans have embraced produce of all kinds, discovering a newfound love for all kinds of derivatives of squash, a true American classic.
All squashes provide health promoting substances and vitamins like A, C, and a fair amount of B. Just a mere ½ cup of butternut squash contains 225% of a person’s daily vitamin A, and deep-colored squashes have tremendous amounts of beta-carotene. All are low in calories and acorn squash is packed with fiber and potassium. They’re also one of the easiest plant-based foods to digest and therefore one of the first introduced into a baby’s diet.
When selecting winter squash, pick hard, blemish-free, mold-free “fruit” with rinds that are dull, not glossy. Acorn squash should have a little orange tint indicating maturity, but too much suggests it’s too ripe. Be sure to feel its weight in your hands, if it’s too light it may have lost moisture and will turn out dry and stringy. Still smaller is better when choosing acorn or butternut squash – each should weigh about two to five pounds.
When storing, raw winter squash, they’ll last about two weeks in the refrigerator; but once cut, use it immediately or cover in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator one to two days.
The best part about the winter squash? Preparing it is a cinch! Roast it with a little butter, salt and pepper; mash/squash it with a fork and enjoy.