This Meatless Monday, we feature winter squash, with growing, storage and prep tips, as well as recipes for Winter Squash Biscuits and the Simplest Squash from Vermont Fresh: A Fruit and Vegetable Handbook.
“Winter squash” is a broad term that encompasses many different types of squash. Well-known varieties include butternut, delicata, hubbard, acorn, and spaghetti squash. Pumpkins are also a type of winter squash, though only certain varieties of pumpkin are suitable for eating. Most large pumpkins are tough and bitter, but some smaller varieties are quite tasty. Many other varieties of winter squash are commonly used in recipes that call for pumpkin (though pumpkin is not always a good substitute in a recipe calling for squash). Part of the cucurbit family, winter squash is related to gourds, cucumbers, and melons. Some types of winter squash are actually quite close relatives of summer squash, a major difference being that winter squash is allowed to mature and form a hard shell while summer squash is harvested sooner. Winter squash, along with corn and beans, was one of the “three sisters” vital to the diet of Native Americans. It is one of the first crops to ever have been cultivated in the Americas; archaeologists have uncovered seed remnants that are believed to date back thousands of years.
Winter squash has a long growing season, typically requiring from 90—120 days to reach maturity, so it is best to start seeds indoors as long as a month before the final frost date. Start seeds in relatively sizable pots with plenty of compost to nourish the seedlings as they grow. Plant outdoors once all danger of frost has passed, direct seed or plant seedlings into hilled-up mounds of soil. Squash plants like plenty of organic matter and warmth. Some growers choose to grow squash in black plastic mulch to increase temperatures and keep weeds from overtaking the sprawling vines. Use floating row cover to ward off cucumber beetles early in the season but remove it once plants flower. Fruits should be harvested with 1-2 inches of stem, when rich in color with a sturdy rind, prior to the first frost.
After harvest, most types of winter squash should be “cured” in a warm, dry spot for several days (outside if the weather is nice). Squash should then be moved to a cool (around 55°), relatively dry place. Undamaged squash stored this way can last months. Squash can also be cooked, then pureed or diced, and frozen.
Winter squash provides complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, vitamins A and C, several types of vitamin B, potassium, manganese, folate, and omega 3 fatty acids. It really packs a punch!
Except delicata, most squash is peeled. Some with smooth skins, like butternut, can be tackled with a vegetable peeler before cooking. For most types, however, you’ll want to slice the squash in half vertically with a sharp knife (careful!), scoop out the seeds, and then roast or steam the pieces until the flesh softens. At that point, you can scoop it out of the skin and put it to use.