Winter squash is called such due to the fact that it is harvested later on in the year, into the fall, when the skins are thick and hard – as is the flesh. Winter squash does not make for good raw eating. It is, however, very flavorful when cooked – much more so than the summer varieties. The seeds are an excellent source of protein and quite delicious when toasted with a few choice seasonings.
The three most common winter squash varieties you are likely to find in the grocery store are the acorn, the butternut, and the spaghetti squash. The acorn squash looks like a large, ridged, dark-green acorn. The butternut squash is a large, light tan squash shaped somewhat like half of a dumbbell. The spaghetti squash is generally a yellow, elongated oval.
The acorn squash is probably the variety of squash most associated with fall baking, as the most popular way to eat it is to cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, and bake it with a little butter and brown sugar or maple syrup. It requires a heavy, sharp knife to cut due to the density of the flesh and thickness of the skin. The acorn squash is high in Vitamins A and C, as well as several of the B vitamins. It is also a good source of a number of the major and trace minerals.
The butternut squash not only makes an excellent addition to winter soups (as well as the star of its own bisque-style soup), it also roasts well in the oven. Like the acorn squash, it has fairly dense flesh and a thick skin. The inner flesh is bright orange, much like a pumpkin. Once roasted lightly, the skin is easy to peel off with a sharp knife or vegetable peeler. The butternut squash provides triple the RDA of vitamin A, 49% of the RDA for vitamin C, and is also an extremely good source of magnesium, manganese, potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin E. Of the three winter squash varieties here, this is certainly the most power-packed, nutrient-wise. A definite boon to the vegetarian diet!
The spaghetti squash is a strange beast. It gets its name from the way the flesh, once cooked, separates into long strands like spaghetti and can in fact be served in place of (or mixed in with) spaghetti noodles and pasta sauce, or pasta primavera. Try a spicy Thai recipe with peanut sauce, substituting the spaghetti squash for the noodles, and see what you think. While not as nutrient-dense as the others, spaghetti squash is a good source of vitamins C and the B vitamins B6, niacin, and pantothenic acid, as well as the mineral manganese.
The pumpkin is also a member of the winter squash family…but that’s a subject that deserves its own post. Stay tuned as fall becomes winter!