When the days grow shorter and the onset of winter becomes unavoidable, many people mourn the loss of colorful fruits and vegetables of the summertime garden or market. But look more closely and you’ll soon discover a bountiful source of goodness in the form of winter squash! Much more than just its best known member — the pumpkin — this nutrient-rich family is available from early autumn through winter and comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.
Formally named the Curcurbitaceae family, all winter squash share some common characteristics. They all have hard shells that can be difficult to pierce, which accounts for their longer shelf life (some lasting up to six months). They all have an inner hollow containing seeds, and the flesh, regardless of variety, tends to have a mildly sweet flavor and fine texture.
Nutritionally, winter squash are exceptionally rich in carotenes, which have been shown to protect against certain types of cancer. Other recent studies indicate they are loaded with anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and insulin-regulating properties. They are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and B1, folic acid, potassium and dietary fiber. All this goodness, plus they are delicious!
If you’ve been passing them by because you’re just not sure what to do with them, here’s a guide to help you see all the ways these versatile beauties can make your table shine, plus a Moroccan-inspired recipe. And if you’re looking for even more ways to use ’em, check out these top 20 winter squash recipes.
Acorn: Shaped like its namesake, the acorn. Mild in flavor, choose one with more dark green than orange in its shell for more tender flesh. Best roasted or stuffed.
Butternut: Pale orange and shaped like an elongated pear, this squash is one of the more common varieties. They have a smooth, inedible rind that can be cut or peeled off. Extremely versatile, they are delicious in soups, chilis, stews and salads – but can also be used in muffins.
Photo: Butternut Squash
Blue Hubbard: These greenish-blue squash are a new variety of their much larger, bumpy ancestors. They have a sweet orange flesh, great in sweet or savory recipes.
Buttercup: Compact and green, with lighter green variegated stripes, these have a pronounced bump, or ‘turban’ on their bottoms. When freshly cut, they smell and appear almost like cucumber, but cooking turns the mild-flavored flesh drier and denser. Well suited to purees, soups and curries.
Kabocha: This Asian variety, sometimes called Japanese pumpkin, is round and green (similar to buttercup but without the stripes). It has a sweet, nutty flavor that shines in soups or stews, or simply roasted with either sweet or savory spices.
Photo: Kabocha Squash
Red Kuri: This lopsided, reddish orange squash has a taste similar to chestnuts. Its smaller size and somewhat softer rind makes it easier to work with. Great roasted or in soups.
Spaghetti Squash: As its name implies, this squash has a unique flesh that, when shredded with a fork, resembles strings of pasta. Try it with your favorite marinara sauce and some sautéed vegetables!
Delicata: This winter squash is oblong, cream with green stripes, and has a soft, edible rind that makes it easier to prepare. It can be cut into rings or sliced lengthwise and stuffed, as in the recipe below. Its softer shell makes it more susceptible to spoiling, so it’s best prepared within three weeks of purchase.
Photo, Delicata Squash. Image: iStock/TonyLMoorePhoto
“Flavor of Fez” Moroccan Stuffed Delicata Squash
Developed for an anti-inflammatory diet, this dish delivers not only the benefits of winter squash noted above, but also boasts the following:
Cauliflower: Loaded with vitamin C, cauliflower is a sulfur-rich vegetable that helps our bodies detoxify. This is relevant for anyone with an autoimmune disease since most have compromised detoxifications systems. It also contains glucobrassicin, which works on a genetic level to turn off inflammatory responses.
Shallots/Garlic: Like other members of the allium family, shallots and garlic deliver important anti-inflammatory advantages. Onionin A—a unique sulfur molecule found in the bulb portion of the plant—has been shown to inhibit the activity of macrophages, specialized white blood cells that play a key role in our body’s immune defense system. While macrophage activity is typically a good thing, inhibition of their activity can sometimes be critical in getting chronic inflammation under control.
Kale: With over 45 different flavonoids including kaempferol and quercetin, kale is a powerful source of both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Kale is also a huge source of vitamin K, a key nutrient for regulating the body’s inflammatory process.
Cranberries: the antioxidants in cranberries, even when dried, are especially effective in lowering the risk of unwanted inflammation.
Pistachios: Nuts are among the foods highest in anti-inflammatory benefits.
This recipe’s Moroccan flair comes from a spice blend called Ras el Hanout. While it can be found in many markets, you can also make your own blend from spices you may already have on hand. The name roughly translates to ‘head of shop’ and refers to the fact that, traditionally, this blend is personalized by the spice dealer at your favorite Arab market. It can be made with as many as 50 spices, but my interpretation does not require nearly as many. Note that this will give you about one cup of spices. It makes a nice addition to soups, stews, or roasted vegetables. However, the recipe can easily be halved if less is desired.Print
Header image: iStock/sarasang