With the first “polar vortex” of the season upon us, it’s hard not to think about curling up under some blankets with some hot soup in hand. One of my personal favorite winter soups to curl up with and devour is squash soup. Winter squash soup to be more exact. There is something about the sweetness and velvety texture that just reminds me of the final days of autumn and the onset of the deeper chill of winter.
Winter squash is good for a lot of things besides soup though. It’s nutritious, stores easily, lasts for a long time, and can be found pretty readily from local farmers. Despite all that, many people don’t seem to want to prepare it. The two most common issues people seem to have with winter squash is they either don’t know how to open the squash up (also referred to as “breaking it down”) or they just don’t know how to prepare it. Let’s see if we can fix that.
Did you know…
Although they come in a variety of sizes, colors, shapes, and flesh textures, most winter squash is very similar on the edible inside (except for spaghetti squash) and therefore interchangeable in recipes. Although a staple of modern-day Thanksgiving dinners, winter squash originates in South America and wasn’t brought north until European colonization. On the topic of Thanksgiving, which is right around the corner, canned pumpkin that is often used for pumpkin pie, is oftentimes acorn squash, a mix of various kinds of squash, or a mix of squash and pumpkin.
Winter squash is a low-calorie food and is a good source of complex vegetable carbohydrates and dietary fiber. It is an excellent source of vitamin A, and a great source of vitamin C, potassium, and manganese. It is also a good source of iron and beta-carotene with the latter being higher in darker-skinned winter squash.
Buying & Storing
When choosing winter squash, look for ones with a hard rind and avoid ones with knicks, cuts, bruising, or soft spots unless you’re using them immediately. Winter squash will store at room temperature for at least a month but will deteriorate faster if the rind is punctured or the fruit is bruised. You can store most varieties of winter squash for several months in a dry and cool (50-55 degrees) but not cold location. For long-term storage, winter squash can be broken down (rind and seeds removed) and frozen raw or cooked and frozen in pieces. It can also be frozen as a puree in air-tight containers.
To prepare various forms of winter squash, remove the top of the squash where it attached to the vine/plant. If you’re peeling the squash, it is often good practice to remove a little bit of the bottom as well so you have a flat surface to sit on the cutting board. With delicata squash, since you can eat the rind, it is good practice to always cut the top and bottom off since the bottom of the squash where the flower attached is often tough.
At this point, there are a variety of ways to break down a squash. You can cut the squash in half, from top to bottom. You could cut the rind off and cube it. However you decide to use your squash, just make sure to remove the seeds. Once you cut the squash open and reveal the seeds, the easiest way to remove them is with a metal spoon or scoop. Make sure to scrape away the seeds and the fibrous innards as you would when carving a pumpkin. Also, if breaking down a winter squash with a bulge and a neck (like butternut), here is a list of steps I follow:
- Cut the top and bottom off. Don’t remove too much of the squash, just enough to have a flat top and flat bottom.
- Cut the neck off right above the bulge of the squash.
- Peel the halves separately.
- Slice, or slice and cube, the neck
- Cut the bulb in half and remove the seeds with a spoon or cut it into eighths and remove the seeds with a paring knife. Then you can easily cube it.
For reference, 1 pound of broken down squash (rind and seeds removed) is equal to about 1.5 cups cooked squash.
Boil/Steam: cut into 1.5- to 2-inch chunks and boil or steam for 15-20 minutes, or until tender. You can peel the squash before or after cooking, peel with a knife or peeler before, or let cool and pull rind from the flesh piece by piece. Sprinkle with some salt and pepper, mash and serve with butter, or puree and use for a “pumpkin” pie filling (best with acorn or butternut).
Roast/Bake: cut in half from top to bottom or just cut the top off, scoop out seeds (cut into smaller sections if serving individual wedges) and baste in oil or butter. Place face down on a baking sheet, pour some water into the baking sheet and bake at 350 for 1-1.5 hours, until the squash is fork-tender. Acorn squash can be baked face-up with melted butter and brown sugar. You can also cube the squash and roast at 400 for 40 minutes and add to hash, puree and make a soup, or roast with root vegetables alongside roasting meats.
Blanching: remove the rind and seeds and then cut the squash into 1/2-inch or 1-inch cubes. Drop the cubes into a pot of boiling water and cook them for 2-3 minutes. Pour the pot through a colander and run cold water over the cubed squash or dump the squash into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process. Blanched squash can be frozen in freezer bags, seasoned and eaten as a side, or further cooked by roasting.
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