If you are the kind of person who sees vegetables as the obligatory and dismal path to, say, cheesecake, winter squash may change your perspective. It’s not too far-fetched to think that these meatily sweet vegetables – with the tantalizing names butternut, delicata, sweet dumpling – were born of some child-led campaign to dupe parents into serving dessert first.
Where many vegetables are a condiment (think tomatoes, cucumbers, basil), winter squashes are a meal unto themselves. They need little dressing up (bake and apply butter), yet can be transformed into stars of every culinary genre. Beyond pies, there is soup, lasagna, fritters, muffins, custard, roasted squash pieces, and fries (see recipe below).
Winter squash are in the plant family Cucurbitaceae, along with melons, pumpkins, gourds, cucumbers and zucchini. It’s no wonder that this hard-shell crop, originating as a puny, bitter-fleshed gourd in Mexico, underwent a 5000-year domestication, breeding into existence the thick, sweet flesh of today. Squash, an inextricable component of the Native American agricultural trio corn, beans and squash, predates its two sisters by several thousand years.
This time of year, farmers markets are a beauty pageant of winter squashes: blue, orange, yellow, specked, warty, lumpy, smooth, acorn-, torpedo-, banana-, and turban-shaped. Some are a dainty, one-person serving (sweet dumpling), some are so gnarly and dense, a handsaw is required for entry (hubbard).
If eating local appeals to you, a winter squash, or 20, can be purchased now and stored in a cool, dry spot (closet, mud-room, garage) well past Thanksgiving, at which time all the cans of pureed pumpkin sprouting on supermarket shelves will appear slightly odd and anachronistic. You can make your own pie puree by roasting or steaming any winter squash, scooping out the softened flesh and freezing.
Winter squash are powerhouses of nutrition, containing megadoses of vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber and manganese. They’re also a good source of folate, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, antioxidants, and beta carotene. But as the children know, we love them because they taste divine.