With thick rinds and unusual shapes, winter squashes — such as acorn, butternut and kabocha — can be a little intimidating, especially compared with their summer counterparts. Unlike thin-skinned zucchini, pattypan and straightneck varieties, which are so delicate they can be eaten raw, all winter squashes require cooking. Happily, they are quite simple to prepare. Roasted, steamed or sautéed, these hearty vegetables can be used in most any kind of dish. And feel free to enjoy them often: They support cardiovascular health, balance blood sugar and may even help ward off cancer.
So don’t let their hard shells put you off. Behind that tough facade lies a tender and comforting surprise.
Quick and Easy
Roasted: Cut squash in half, scoop out seeds, place on a sheet tray cut-side down, and roast at 450 degrees F for about 20 minutes. When squash has cooled enough to handle, turn it over and serve with a little olive oil or butter. Or scoop out the flesh, mash and use in your favorite recipes.
Stuffed: Cut open and scoop out the seeds. Roast the squash until just cooked, and then fill with a savory cooked stuffing of your choice — meat, whole-kernel grains and vegetables, for example. Roast together until stuffing is heated through.
Puréed: Use a blender or mixer to purée cooked squash, then use as a base or addition to soups, risottos, dips, sauces, baked goods, casseroles, even smoothies.
Cubed or sliced: After it is peeled and seeded, squash can be easily cut into small pieces, then roasted or steamed for use in your favorite vegetable medley. Prepared ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator, roasted cubes or slices of squash, served cool or warmed, make an excellent addition to salads and stir-fries. Try squash bits tossed with arugula or spinach, toasted pumpkin seeds, and dried cranberries.
Seeds: Roasted squash seeds make a satisfying, healthy snack. Wash and allow to dry completely, and then roast with a bit of ghee and curry powder.
Varieties of Winter Squash
- Acorn: Sweet, nutty and peppery, baked acorn squash is a classic.
- Butternut: Excellent steamed and in soups, the sweet, nutty butternut is a good squash for beginners.
- Delicata: The creamy delicata tastes like a cross between sweet potatoes and butternut squash and is wonderful sautéed.
- Hubbard: Less sweet than many varieties, hubbard squash has a grainy texture and is best baked and served mashed or puréed.
- Kabocha: With sweet flavors and dry, flaky flesh, kabocha — the Japanese word for squash — can be baked, steamed or sautéed.
- Pumpkin: The dark orange flesh of the pumpkin is excellent mashed and in pies. It will store in a cool, dark, dry place for two to three months.
- Spaghetti: A surprising and nutty stand-in for pasta, the flesh of this squash separates into spaghetti-like strands when cooked.
- All carbs are not created equal. Squashes may be starchy, but many of their carbohydrates come from polysaccharides, which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and insulin-regulating properties. Polysaccharides are also found in foods like mushrooms and sea vegetables.
- The antioxidant properties of winter squash are also boosted by carotenoids, vitamin C and manganese.
- The body converts winter squashes’ beta-carotene and carotenoid phytonutrients into immune-supporting vitamin A.
- Winter squashes are more nutrient-dense — particularly in beta-carotene and B vitamins — than their summer counterparts, which contain most of their nutrients in their rinds.
- Winter squashes contain omega-3 fatty acids and cucurbitacins with powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
- There are hundreds of squash varieties grown worldwide, and while their nutrients are quite similar, they do vary. The deeper the orange color of the flesh, for example, the more beta-carotene it contains.
- If you plan to bake winter squash, cut the ends off first so it’s easier to cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. For rounder varieties, grasp the squash firmly and use a sharp knife to cut through to the center, then rotate the squash and cut until it falls open. Given a few fork pricks while baking, smaller varieties like gold nugget and sweet dumpling squash can be baked whole fairly quickly.
- After it is baked, winter squash can easily be peeled, then cut to desired size for your recipe. Alternately, cool the baked squash, then scrape or scoop the flesh out of the skin.
- When cut into 1-inch cubes, most squash needs only seven minutes to steam.
Shopping and Storage Tips
- Choose squashes that have hard, smooth, deep-colored rinds, are heavy for their size, and are free of moldy spots.
- Squash pulls both nutrients and chemical contaminants from the soil, so buy organic or responsibly farmed whenever possible.
- Known as “good keepers,” winter squashes can be stored between one week and six months, depending on variety. Store whole in a dry, dark, cool place, ideally around 50 to 60 degrees F, until ready for cooking.
- Before freezing, cook winter squash and cut to size for your recipes.
Thai Squash Curry
This spicy meal is wonderful with any sturdy, meaty squash, such as kabocha or delicata.
Makes six servings
- 1 tbs. coconut oil
- 1/4 cup red curry paste
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced (about 11/2 cups)
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 1 medium kabocha or other firm-fleshed squash, cubed (about 4 cups or 1 pound)
- 2 cups green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 to 2 jalapeños, sliced
- 1 1/4-ounce can coconut milk
- 8 ounces water
- 2 tsp. fish sauce
- 2 kaffir lime leaves, torn into small pieces
- 6 cups cooked brown rice
- 1/4 cup Thai basil leaves for serving
Heat the coconut oil in a heavy Dutch oven and add curry paste. Stir to flavor the oil, then add the onions and peppers and cook for two to three minutes, stirring to coat with the curry paste. Add squash and jalapeños, and cook for about five minutes while stirring. Add the coconut milk, water, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, and cover and simmer until squash is just tender, about five to seven minutes. Serve over brown rice and top with fresh Thai basil.
Grilled Winter Squash Tacos
Using grilled winter squash instead of meat brings a tasty twist to this taco. Serve with a zesty quinoa salad.
Makes four servings
- 1 butternut squash, about 11/2 pounds, peeled, seeded and cut into ¼-inch slices
- 4 thick slices red onion
- 1 tbs. olive oil
- 2 tsp. ground coriander
- 2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- Cayenne pepper to taste
- 8 corn tortillas
- 6 radishes, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup shredded napa cabbage
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 cup crumbled Cotija cheese or feta cheese
Heat a grill pan or grill. Toss the sliced squash and onion with the olive oil and spices, and cook until just tender. Serve in tortillas and add fresh toppings.
Baked Squash and Apples With Ginger and Pecans
A simple and elegant side dish that brings out the best and brightest in both main ingredients.
Makes six servings
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, plus butter to grease the baking dish
- 1 1/4 pounds squash, such as butternut, kabocha or acorn, peeled and seeded and sliced into ¼-inch wedges (about 4 cups)
- 2 medium baking apples, such as Granny Smith, cored and sliced into ¼-inch wedges
- 2 tbs. minced fresh gingerroot
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice (optional)
- 1/3 cup chopped pecans
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly butter a 2-quart baking dish and layer the squash and apple slices overlapping each other. Melt the 1/4 cup butter, add the ginger, and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. If you would like to add a little cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice, add a 1/2 teaspoon to the butter mixture. Pour the butter mixture over the squash and apples. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake for about 15 minutes, then uncover and continue to bake for another 25 minutes or until squash is tender. Top with pecans.
All of these recipes were created by Betsy Nelson (a.k.a. “That Food Girl”), a Minneapolis-based food stylist and recipe developer.
Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and a frequent contributor to Experience Life.