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November, 2008

Tis the Season for Squash

By Christina Pirello

As the holiday season approaches, people naturally begin to think more and more about food. We see article after article, advertisement after advertisement, talking about the joy of the feast, from preparation to decoration to serving.

Winter Squash
During the holiday feasting, seemingly dedicated to consumption, what do you serve your vegetarian guests? Are they doomed to create a meal from your side dishes? Do you panic and serve them tofu and sprout burgers? Lucky for you, it's winter squash season as well, with all the yummy elegance of holiday feasting as nature intended.

Winter squash is the fruit of an annual plant belonging to the same family as melon and cucumber and includes a staggering array of choices. Cultivated squash as we know it is descendent from wild squash, believed to have originated in the region between Mexico and Guatemala, in Central America, later spreading to North and South America.

Having been consumed for over 10,000 years, squash was originally more prized for its seeds, as early wild squash was less fleshy. Over the years, cultivation has led to the squash we know and love today, with its seeds housed in succulent, moist, sensually sweet flesh.

Most varieties of squash are divided into summer and winter squash. Summer squash is delicate and highly perishable, while winter squash is hearty and sweet ... my personal favorite. Winter squash are harvested when fully ripe. They vary in shape, size and color, but have in common a denser; much sweeter flesh that turns delightfully creamy when cooked. Like melon, winter squash has an inner cavity that houses an abundance of edible seeds, which, when washed, dried and roasted are a yummy treat, loaded with nutrients. Many people think that the hard outer skin of winter squash is inedible, but in fact, can be enjoyed with few exceptions. And since many delicate, surface nutrients reside in the skin, you may want to reconsider peeling them.

With many varieties already available - and continually expanding, winter squash can be enjoyed all season, with no risk of boredom. Here are just a few varieties: Butternut (pear-shaped, beige squash, with rich orange flesh); Buttercup (round deep green-skinned squash with bright orange, intensely sweet flesh; Turban (green, with colored stripes or speckled on the skin, with a pale golden flesh that is drier than most, but very sweet, with a hint of hazelnut-like flavor; Hubbard (rough, tough outer skin and fibrous outer flesh - can be quite large); Acorn (wide-ribbed, with a tough skin that is very difficult to digest so I recommend peeling; pale orange flesh that is not overly sweet and ideal for stuffing); Kabocha (bright orange skin and flesh, intensely sweet and creamy when cooked, and great for stuffing).

When choosing winter squash look for undamaged, slightly glossy skin. Look for medium size, as overly large squash can be fibrous and overly small ones will lack flavor. Winter squash will keep in a cool, dry place for several weeks to months, depending on the variety of squash you choose. Once you have cut a squash, if you will not be using it all, remove all the seeds, even from the unused portion, wrap the remainder in plastic, and store in the refrigerator. It will keep for 1-2 weeks. If you leave the seeds in the unused portion the squash will sour easily.

Rich in complex carbohydrates, potassium, vitamin A and C, folic acid, as well as pantothenic acid, winter squash is not only delicious but is an incredible source of fuel. Here's my favorite holiday winter squash recipe, perfect for the vegetarian at your table, or anyone who enjoys yummy food.