Bursting with vitamins and minerals, winter squash and pumpkins are good for more than just Halloween jack-o'-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies.
These "cousin" members of the gourd family have a history as rich as their succulent flavor. Squash and pumpkins hail from the Western hemisphere, where people in Mexico were eating squash as early as 5500 B.C. Early colonists in the New World found the Native Americans feasting on these unsightly vegetables. The settlers soon discovered the pleasant taste of these yellow and orange veggies and called them squash, which comes from a Native American word meaning "eaten raw." Pumpkins were so popular in early America that folk songs proclaimed their merits, and, as legend has it, Thanksgiving was once postponed in a Connecticut settlement because the molasses needed to make the beloved pumpkin pie was not readily available.
According to researchers at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, there are thousands of varieties of winter squash, pumpkins, and other edible gourds, the majority of which thrive in Tennessee. They are generally planted in the spring, grow during the warm summer months, and are harvested in the fall, before the first major frost. The most popular varieties of winter squash include acorn, banana, buttercup, butternut, hubbard, spaghetti, and sweet dumpling. The butternut squash, likely the forerunner in any popularity contest, has a sweet, golden flesh and relatively thin skin that can be removed with a vegetable peeler. Acorn squash is one of the most widely-available and smallest varieties. When cooked, the spaghetti variety yields mildly sweet strands resembling its namesake pasta. Pumpkins also come in a number of varieties, including the larger jack-o'-lantern types, and the smaller pie pumpkin varieties, which have a more pleasant flavor and texture than the larger pumpkins.
Winter squash and some pumpkins are available most of the year, but these fall favorites are at the peak of flavor from late September through November. Winter squash and pumpkins are picked when mature, rendering a hard, inedible skin. When choosing a squash or pumpkin, pick one that has a smooth, hard skin free of soft spots or blemishes. Look for a gourd with a deeply colored skin that feels heavy for its size and has the stem in place, which prevents bacterial contamination. These vegetables can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to three months. Avoid refrigerating whole gourds, which accelerates spoilage. To preserve these vegetables beyond three months, you can freeze cooked and pureed squash for use in soups, quick breads, or for a trendy twist, as a ravioli filling.
Despite the origin of the name squash, winter squash and pumpkin varieties must be cooked, and only the tender flesh is eaten. Cooking brings out the natural sweet, nutty flavor of many varieties. Try these cooking methods this fall: Baking Cut gourd in half, remove seeds, and place cut-side down on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 degrees to 400 degrees F for approximately 45 minutes. This cooking method produces the sweetest product due to the caramelization of natural sugars in the flesh. Boiling For quicker cooking, peel, cut into cubes, and boil about five minutes. Boiling may be faster, but it will reduce the intensity of the squash's flavor slightly. Microwaving Cut gourd in half and place cut-side down in a microwave-safe dish. Cover and cook approximately seven to ten minutes, or until tender. Sautéing Cook sliced, diced, or grated squash in broth over medium-high heat for about ten minutes. This method can be used to achieve a crunchy texture. Steaming Cook squash halves or pieces over boiling water until tender.
With an average of less than 80 calories and zero grams of fat per cup cooked, winter squash and pumpkin are both low-calorie, heart-healthy choices that are also rich in many vitamins and minerals. The bright yellow-orange color of these vegetables indicates that they are a good source of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage that can lead to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Most varieties are also good sources of vitamins A and C, which help maintain good vision and strong immunity to help you fight off those winter colds. These edible gourds also contribute fiber, which can help to maintain good bowel function and heart health.