The weather is turning cooler and the leaves are beginning to fall, and soon people will begin to spruce up their homes with fall decorations of scarecrows, bales of hay, mums and of course colorful pumpkins and squash. While many of us use decorative pumpkins and squash in our fall color scheme, did you know that many of these fall vegetables are good to eat?
The squash family (Cururbitaceae) includes pumpkins, summer squash and winter squash. Even though most people use them as decorations, they are edible gourds. There are many varieties with a wide range of flavors and textures. Their tough outer shells can be smooth or bumpy, thin or thick and rock hard with a wide array of colors. The most popular winter squash varieties include acorn, buttercup, butternut, calabaza, delicata, Hubbard, spaghetti, sweet dumpling and Turk's turban.
Winter squash is planted in the spring, grows all summer and is harvested at the mature stage in early autumn before the first frost. You will find fresh winter squash at local farmers markets. However, most of the squash in our local grocery stores has been shipped in from other parts of the country.
Winter squash is a tasty source of complex carbohydrates and fiber. Carbohydrates give our bodies energy and help our brain to function properly. Fiber absorbs water and becomes bulky in the stomach. It works throughout the intestinal tract, cleaning and moving waste quickly out of the body. Research suggests that this soluble fiber plays an important role in reducing the incidence of colon cancer.
Winter squash is also a source of potassium, niacin, iron and beta carotene. The orange-fleshed squash is also an excellent source of beta carotene. As a general rule the deeper the orange color, the higher the beta carotene content. Beta carotene is changed into Vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is essential for healthy skin, vision, bone development, plus many other functions in the body.
When preparing winter squash for meal preparation, peeling the squash can be a challenge. The thin-skinned varieties, such as acorn, butternut, delicata and sweet dumpling, can be peeled with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Larger, tough-skinned varieties, such as Hubbard and Turk's Turban, will require using a sharp cleaver to split open the hard rind. Another option for peeling tough skin varieties is to position the squash on a cutting board, stem end facing you. Place the blade of a heavy chef's knife horizontally along the length of the squash. With a hammer or mallet, repeatedly hit the back of the blade near the handle to drive it into the squash until it breaks in half. Once the squash has broken in half it will be easier to peel. With a spoon, scoop out the seeds and strings and discard, or save the seeds for roasting.
To cook winter squash, place unpeeled pieces cut sides down on a shallow baking dish and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes or longer. Check for doneness by piercing with a fork. When tender, remove from the oven and allow the pieces to cool. Spoon out the soft flesh and mash with a fork or process in a blender or food processor. Peeled pieces can be cut into cubes and boiled until tender. Use with any recipe calling for cooked mashed or pureed squash.
Small acorn squash and spaghetti squash can be pierced with a long-tined fork or metal skewer and baked whole. Piercing the skin prevents the shell from bursting during cooking. Place the squash on a baking dish and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours at 325 degrees. Test for doneness by squeezing the shell. When it gives a bit with pressure, it is done.
Favorite spices to use to add flavor to winter squash include garlic, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, basil, parsley and a pinch of ground cloves. Sweeten squash pulp with maple syrup, honey, brown sugar, or orange juice concentrate.
Why not be adventurous this season and try one of the many winter squash varieties available as a compliment to your main dish instead of using them just for decorations?
For more information, contact the Miller County Extension Office, 870-779-3609 or visit us in room 215 at the Miller County Courthouse. We're online at email@example.com, on Facebook at UAEXMillerCountyFCS, on Twitter @MillerCountyFCS or on the web at uaex.edu/Miller.
This recipe uses winter squash and is delicious for breakfast, as a snack or as a dessert. Enjoy a slice of this honey-sweetened bread with low-fat cream cheese or whipped butter. To warm: Wrap thick slices in a paper towel and microwave for 15 to 20 seconds on high.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup margarine
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 egg plus 1 egg white
1 and 1/4 cup pureed cooked winter squash
In a small bowl sift together the first six ingredients. Set aside. In a large bowl, cream margarine, sugar and honey together until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and egg white. Add squash puree and beat until smooth.
Fold in dry ingredients. Pour into a greased 9x5-inch loaf pan. Bake until golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about one hour. Remove from the oven, let stand in pan 10 minutes. Turn out onto a wire cooling rack or cake plate to cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Carla Due is a county extension agent-staff chair, with the Miller County Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.