Winter squash works for decorating and dinner

Nothing perks up a grocery store produce aisle like the array of winter squash on display in the fall.  The variety of shapes, sizes, and colors available make it ideal for inclusion in fall decorating schemes and dinner menus.  From acorn squash to the cute miniature pumpkins for sale by the bag, winter squash are an autumn staple.

Pumpkin is the most popular winter squash, but there are many great options at the grocery store, including butternut, acorn, hubbard, and buttercup varieties.  Winter squash is rich in vitamin A, dietary fiber, folate, and potassium.  If prepared without added fat or salt, winter squash is naturally low in calories, fat, and sodium.

Storing winter squash

Winter squash has a long shelf life and can be stored for up to three months in the right environment.  Store in a cool, dry place and you could enjoy winter squash purchased today into next year. Ideally, winter squash should be stored at temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  There is no need to store in the refrigerator.

Choosing winter squash

When choosing winter squash, look for firm, well-shaped squash that are heavy for their size and have a hard, tough skin.  Avoid squash with cuts or punctures in the skin, and do not purchase those with sunken or moldy spots. Slight variations in color do not affect flavor. Unlike summer squash, winter squash is picked when fully ripe.  A tender rind indicates immaturity and signals poor quality in winter squash varieties, so be sure the skin is tough.

The flesh of winter squash varies from yellow to deep oranges, and most varieties have a sweet, buttery,  firm flesh.  Winter squash is drier, more fibrous, and much sweeter than summer squash.  With the exception of spaghetti squash, winter squash varieties can be substituted for one another in recipes.

 Preparing winter squash

Winter squash preparation techniques are numerous.  Most varieties of winter squash are eaten cooked.  Their hard shells and seeds are not edible.  In general, all winter squash bakes well and steaming works for cut pieces.  It can be roasted, baked, whipped, and mashed for use in a number of dishes including soups, pies, soufflés, cakes, cookies, casseroles and as fillers for stews and sauces. The squash can also be frozen, canned, dried, pickled and prepared in butters and preserves.

Try these tips for including winter squash in your diet. Preparation is easy and can add variety to your regular recipe rotation.

  • Acorn squash is good for baking and goes well with sweet, nutty or spice stuffing. Cut in half, scoop out seeds, and bake cut side down at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Add a few tablespoons of water to the baking dish before baking. After baking, add brown sugar and cinnamon to taste.
  • Cooked butternut squash, with its fine-grained flesh, is perfect for pureeing. Cut pieces can also be included in soups and stews.
  • Hubbard squash grows so large that it is often sold as cut pieces. It mashes well after cooking. This variety of squash can be frozen or used in breads, muffins, pancakes and soups.
  • True to its name, cooked spaghetti squash resembles pasta. Lift out the sweet, mild-tasting, tender-crunchy strands and top with marinara sauce.
  • Cut the tops from mini-pumpkins, scoop out the seeds, and season the edible flesh with cinnamon, brown sugar and a small amount of butter or margarine.  Replace the tops and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
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