Where would Italian cuisine be without America? Strange as it might sound, imagine how astonishingly different Italian food would be without tomatoes to make delicious, rich sauces, or corn for creamy polenta. Think of the gastronomic delights we would miss! Take zucchini, a type of squash. They've become so intertwined with Italian cooking and culture that Americans even call them by their Italian name, although they originated on this side of the globe. In fact, just like tomatoes and corn, squash of all shapes and sizes were a tasty gift from the New World. Part of the large Cucurbitaceae plant family –– which includes everything from pumpkins and winter squash to zucchini, melons, and cucumbers –– squash are said to have originated in the South American Andes and were grown in several parts of the American continent well before Columbus arrived.
So it’s no surprise that in the US the fall season is associated with pumpkins and winter squash. Most of us have a rather superficial acquaintance with them, however, often limited to the ubiquitous Jack-o-Lantern, a few pretty ornamental varieties, lots of pumpkin pie, and the occasional acorn squash soup. But try walking through a farmers market these days, and you'll see an astounding assortment of squash of all colors and forms, from traditional orange pumpkins to smaller delicata and butternut squash to big hubbards. And they're all so full of flavor and incredibly versatile! What other food can be mashed to make soups and delicate purées, stuffed into tantalizing ravioli, used in flavorful risotti and mouth-watering sweets, and hallowed to look like a scary skull lit from within by a candle?
Although called "winter" squash, they really start appearing in late summer and keep growing through December –– some kinds grow even further into the winter. Unlike summer squash such as zucchini or yellow squash, which are harvested and eaten in the immature stages when the rind is still soft, winter squash are harvested when fully mature and the rind is hard.
If you're a squash newcomer whose experience is confined to ultra-sweet pumpkin pie covered with generous amounts of whipped cream, start with a butternut or delicate squash and you won’t be disappointed. Butternut squash are light beige with a peanut-like shape, and they taste somewhat like sweet potatoes. Delicata squash are smaller and narrower, their rind is usually yellow with a few green streaks and their flavor is, well, delicate.
Other culinary favorites include acorn squash, a rather large, round squash of a dark green hue with some lighter orange spots, that makes a hearty soup; hubbard, a large, bumpy and thick-skinned squash with a fairly sweet flavor; kabocha, a drier, flakier type with a round shape and a flattened top, green in color with occasional white stripes; and spaghetti squash, which has nothing to do with the pasta, but is called that because its flesh is stringy and turns into strands that resemble spaghetti when cooked. (You can even substitute it for spaghetti in many dishes!)
No matter what type of squash you pick, go beyond the pumpkin pie and experiment with baking, braising, pureeing, and even sautéing –– you'll open a wonderful new window of culinary delights.
Picking winter squash is somewhat similar to picking melons. It’s more difficult than choosing other varieties of vegetables or fruit because physical damage may be less evident on the outside. As a general rule, the skin should be fairly hard and dull without soft areas or cracks, and the heavier the squash the tastier and more moist it will be.
Squash don’t have to be refrigerated unless cut. Store them in a dry place at room temperature and they should last for several weeks. If you do cut them, make sure to wrap them in plastic or foil and store them in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Winter squash, like their summer counterparts, can be eaten raw. In fact, the term “squash” derives from the Narragansett Indian word “askootasquash,” which means something like "food eaten raw." The sweet, satisfying flavor and the soft, luscious texture we've learned to associate with squash, however, comes from cooking it, whether we bake it, steam, it or sauté it. You don’t need to peel squash before cooking it, as the skin will usually soften with intense heat and come off more easily.
To bake all types of squash, cut them in half lengthwise, scoop the seeds out and place them on a baking pan with the open side facing down. Don’t forget to season them with any seasoning you wish, from a little olive oil with salt and pepper, to a sweeter butter, brown sugar and cinnamon combination. Place them in the oven at 400 degrees and let cook for 40 to 90 minutes, depending on size and texture. You really want your squash to caramelize to eliminate excess moisture and release its natural sugars. Once out of the oven, scoop out the pulp and use it to make soups, purées, sauces, pie fillings and other wonderful preparations. Just pick a good recipe!
The procedure for steaming squash is similar to baking it, but requires the addition of about 1/2 inch of water to the bottom of the baking pan. Steaming will not allow for the same degree of caramelization that baking produces, but is often required for a subtler flavor.
There’s no reason why winter squash can’t be treated like summer varieties: peel (optionally), cut into small pieces and sauté in a hot skillet with a little oil or butter. Heat your favorite type of cooking fat in a skillet, add the cut up squash and cook over a medium-high flame until the flesh is tender and the skin (if left on) has softened. Season with salt and pepper and your sautéed squash is ready to be served as a side dish or a garnish on soups. Squash can also be pan-fried. Peel it and cut it into thin slices or strips. Heat some good cooking oil, enough to come about one inch up the side of the pan. Toss in the slices and cook for a few minutes, until slightly crispy. These will make an unusual and tasty garnish.
-by Laura Giannatempo
The seeds of winter squash are delicious when toasted. Rinse them well and pat dry. Toss them lightly in oil and a little salt, spread them on a sheet pan, and bake at 250 degrees for about 1 hour. If you'd like to brown the seeds slightly, turn on the broiler for the last 4-5 minutes of baking. Let cool and store in a sealable bag or jar with a lid. Not only do they taste great, they're nutritious and good for you!