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Squash

Squash was a food staple in the Americas for some eight thousand years before the first European explorers arrived here. Like melons and cucumbers, squashes are edible gourds that are indigenous to North, Central, and South America. The name comes form the Algonquin word askutasquash, which means, "eaten raw" and probably derives form the kind of summer squash encountered by early European settlers. The Native Americans taught them how to store and use winter squashes as a staple and demonstrated the curative and hygienic properties of squash seeds. Following the practice of the natives, the settlers ate whatever was available in the wild--fish, fowl, venison-which often carried parasites, and cured themselves by eating squash.

Varieties

The squashes commonly found in the United States are divided into summer and winter varieties. Summer varieties are immature squashes, usually small in size, with a soft skin, white flesh, high water content, and crunchy texture. Summer squashes are 100 percent edible, seeds and all, and very perishable. Winter varieties are fully mature squashes that are usually larger in size, with a hard outer shell and a long shelf life. They are always eaten cooked. Most have an orange flesh that is sweeter and nuttier in flavor than the more delicate summer squashes and contain large quantities of beta-carotene. The larger, harder seeds of winter squashes are usually discarded, but they can be salted, roasted, and eaten like nuts.

Summer squash

Yellow squash and long, slender, dark green zucchini are probably the two most familiar summer squashes, but there are other good varieties. These include the chayote, which is pear-shaped, with white, pale, or dark green skin, the cocozelle, which is shaped like a zucchini and striped green and yellow, and the tiny scalloped pattypan, which has white, yellow, or green stripes and looks like a little flying saucer.

Winter Squash

Winter squashes all have a hard skin. There are many varieties and a hundred ways to cook them.

Acorn squash, so named because it's shaped a bit like a large acorn, is one of the smaller winter squashes. It has a dark green skin and orange flesh.

Banana squash is cylindrical in shape, with an ivory to pink shell and ivory to pink flesh.

Buttercup squash is turban-shaped, with a green or orange skin and yellow flesh.

Butternut is fairly large and pear-shaped, with a smooth, cream-colored skin and orange flesh.

Delicata, which I think is one of the best-tasting squashes, is long and slender--something like a cucumber. It has a green and beige striped skin and yellow flesh.

Golden acorn looks just like acorn squash, except the skin is bright orange and the flesh is sweeter than that of the green acorn squash.

Golden nugget is closely related to the acorn variety. A very deep orange color inside and out, it is mostly available in small, single-serving sizes. It can be opened like a small pumpkin, which it looks exactly like, scooped out, basted with butter, and baked whole.

Hubbard squash may be the least attractive-looking of the lot, but it's terrific. Very large in size, with a hard, thick, bumpy, gray-green or orange shell, it has very sweet orange flesh. An uncut one can be stored in a cool, dry place for months without losing its flavor and sweetness. An average Hubbard squash can weigh twenty pounds, so most produce stands will sell cut halves or quarters. Cut Hubbards should be wrapped and refrigerated, and they'll keep about a week. Hubbard squash can be baked, mashed, added to soups, or mixed with other vegetables in a casserole. It makes an excellent pie; although it has the same flavor as a pumpkin pie, it's sweeter and requires less sugar. It also has a thicker, firmer texture than fresh pumpkin, so that it sets up better. An especially nutritious variety, Hubbard squash has a high vitamin content and delivers enormous quantities of beta-carotene.

Pumpkins are another variety of winter squash, with an orange or tan shell and orange flesh. It provides more beta-carotene per serving than any other fruit or vegetable. (See Pumpkins.)

Spaghetti squash has a round or oval yellow shell. The yellow- to cream-colored flesh inside comes out in strands, giving the squash its name.

Sweet dumpling squash is another one of my favorites. It has a green skin streaked with white and yellow-orange flesh.

Turban squash has bumpy orange to red skin with green stripes. The flesh is usually orange.

Season

Summer squashes, especially zucchini, are generally available year round, but the peak seasons between April and September.

Winter squashes are also available year round, but some varieties are hard to find in the summer. The peak season is September through March.

Selecting

All squashes should have a solid, heavy feel. A squash that feels light for its size may be soft and dehydrated inside. Summer squashes should have a firm but tender, sleek, unblemished skin. A shiny skin on yellow squash and zucchini is a good indication that it was picked young and tasty. Choose small to medium-sized squashes, rather than large ones, for the best flavor and texture.

Winter squashes vary widely in size, but most of them are quite large. For that reason they're often sold in halves or quarters. The hard shell of a winter squash should be undamaged, but the skin, unlike that of summer squashes, should be dull, which indicates the squash was picked when fully mature. Make sure the stem is still, attached; a missing stem means the squash has been in storage too long.

Storing

Summer squash: Store refrigerated in an unsealed plastic bag and use within three or four days. Handle summer squash carefully because the tender skin is easily nicked.

Winter squash: Never refrigerate unless it's been cut; then wrap in plastic and store only a day or two before using. The smaller the winter squash, the shorter the shelf life; acorn squash, for example, should be used within two or three weeks of purchase. Some of the larger varieties of winter squash will stay sweet and good-tasting as long as six or seven months if kept in a dry, cool (not cold) place, out of direct sunlight.

Preparing Summer Squash

Summer squashes have high water content--never overcook or they will turn to mush. Overcooking is probably why so many kids hate squash! There are exceptions, but zucchini, chayote, crookneck, and cocozelle never need peeling. If the squash looks nice and tender, leave the peel on. Simply wash it and discard a thin slice from each end.

Summer squashes are terrific brushed with a little oil and cooked on the grill, and they can be steamed, sautˇed, stir-fried, or baked in casseroles. Use very little water if you're going to boil a squash. Cut it into horizontal slices about a quarter of an inch thick, put in just enough water to cover the bottom of the pan, add salt, pepper, and butter if desired, cover, and cook no more than three to five minutes. Turn the squash a few times to cook evenly and test frequently for doneness--it's done when it's easily pierced with a fork but retains some crunch.

To grill, slice the squash lengthwise, marinate or brush with an oil-based salad dressing or with olive oil, herbs, and perhaps some garlic, then grill over hot coals, turning occasionally so it doesn't burn.

Young, tender summer squashes, especially zucchini, are good raw in salads or with dips. They are delicious lightly steamed, stir-fried in a little oil, or fried tempura-style in batter. There are many Mediterranean recipes that call for squash--it's good in a ratatouille or baked with Parmesan cheese. Zucchini can also be used in zucchini bread--a sweet bread, almost like cake, that makes a good dessert--and muffins.

Pattypan squash is good stuffed and baked. Cut off the stem end and carefully scoop out the seeds and some of the flesh. Stuff with a combination of bread crumbs, minced, sautˇed onions, herbs, and grated cheese, or with sweet corn, diced sautˇed red sweet peppers, and minced scallions. Bake in a moderate oven about twenty minutes, or until tender.

Preparing Winter Squash

Cutting a winter squash can present an interesting challenge. When I did a show on winter squash, I invited Matt Lauer, an NBC reporter, to demonstrate--then gave him a pair of goggles and heavy gloves and pulled a chain saw from under the counter. It was a joke but not too far off the mark. We have a customer at the store whose husband cuts the winter squash with a band saw! The problem is that the shell is very hard, the squash tends to roll, and the blade of a knife tends to slip off the smooth skin.

A kitchen saw or even a small saw from the workshop will make short work of it, but another reasonably simple way to cut into a winter squash is to look for the area on the squash that has indentations or ribs. Lay the squash so it's as steady as you can get it, insert the pint of a sturdy knife in a crease, give the handle a couple of taps with a hammer to start the cut, then proceed as if you were cutting a watermelon. (Need I say that you have to be extremely careful when you do this?) Remove the seeds before cooking.

Smaller winter squash are best baked. Cut in half, brush with butter, sprinkle with brown sugar, and bake for about thirty minutes, or until tender. Acorn squash are typically baked. Golden acorn, golden nugget, delicata, and sweet dumpling squashes are particularly delicious prepared this way; because they're so sweet, they'll need less sugar than green-skinned acorns.

Very large squashes can be peeled, cut in chunks, and boiled from ten to twenty minutes, or until tender. The chunks can then be pureed or mashed and prepared as you would mashed potatoes; butternut squash is at its best prepared this way. Winter squash is delicious added to soups and stews or sliced, battered, and fried; precook it in water until the flesh is tender-crisp before frying.

Spaghetti squash is best baked whole in a moderately hot oven for one to one and a half hours, depending on the size of the squash. Pierce the squash in two or three places before baking to release steam. After it's done, cut in half and use a fork to remove the flesh, which looks and handles like spaghetti. You can toss it with a marinara sauce or top it with butter or cheese. A lot of people like to eat spaghetti squash cold with vinaigrette.

At home Betty makes a cold zucchini salad that's very simple, quick, and delicious. Slice the zucchini and sautˇ briefly in olive oil with a bit of garlic. Remove from the heat and, while the zucchini is still hot, splash a top-quality vinegar over it. It can be a good wine vinegar or a balsamic or herbed vinegar, depending on you preference. Add some salt and pepper and serve either warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

Because of its versatility, zucchini is a good staple to keep around the house. The other night we got home late, and neither of us wanted to bother with a big meal, so Betty sliced and sautˇed zucchini and potato, added beaten eggs to the pan when the vegetables were almost done, and made a terrific frittata.

Recipes

Butternut & Cranberry Casserole

Butternut Squash Soup

Marinated Zucchini

Patsy's Linguine and Zucchini

Pumpkin Cake

Zucchini and Chicken

Zucchini Bread

Other recipes from Produce Pete.

   

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