by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
One of the vegetables I relish in this season is winter squash. It provides such a wealth of nutrients and a big bonus is that it can be bought locally at least in the early winter months.
Winter squash are members of the gourd or cucurbit family along with cucumber, melon, pumpkin, and summer squash. They originated in the Americas. Native Americans relied on them for a major part of their nutrition during winter months since they could be stored for several months. They felt they provided so much nutrition that they made a practice of burying their dead with winter squash to nourish them on their journey.
Winter squash provide a bounty of nutrients and have many health properties. They are a must to have in your diet on a regular basis during the winter season! Very few foods provide as highly concentrated a form of carotenoids as winter squash, a gold mine of alpha and beta carotene and other carotenoids. In addition to that they contain a significant amount of fiber, potassium, manganese, vitamin C and several B vitamins. It is true winter squash is very starchy but along with it comes other unique properties. Research is showing that winter squash has specially structured carbohydrate sugars containing pectin that line the cell walls which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic regulating capabilities. The wide variety of B vitamins found in winter squash helps to regulate the high carbohydrate load as well. One B vitamin-like compound found in squash which we will hear more about it in the future is showing positive results with stabilizing blood sugars too.
Winter squash has protective cardiovascular benefits as well. Early evidence from research completed has shown that squash has the ability to block the formation of cholesterol. It also contains about 340 mgs per cup of omega 3 fats, which is not nearly as high as some other plant sources like walnuts, but it can’t be ignored if you are following a diet to reduce heart disease risk.
Winter squash is an important vegetable to buy organic too, since it is on the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list of produce with the highest concentration of pesticides. An important attribute of planting winter squash is that it has been shown to be instrumental in reversing the damage in soil that has been contaminated by certain pesticides. Test trials have shown that winter squash plants have been effective in drawing certain pollutants out of the soil.
Winter squash comes in all shapes and sizes and there are at least 25 different varieties. The most common ones found easily around here are: butternut, acorn, hubbard, kabocha, carnival, delicata, spaghetti, and sweet dumpling. Each of these squash has a distinct personality and it all depends on your personal taste as to what is your preference. Look for squash with a hard outer shell and few blemishes unless you plan on cooking it right away. Butternut squash holds up longer I have found than any other squash. I have kept some until early May over the last few years but a cool dark storage area is the secret to long storage. Squash can be prepared in many ways but I generally bake, roast, or steam them and use them in soups, bread, cookies, stir fries, burritos and pie. Try the recipe here which is adapted from the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites Cookbook. It has a delicious flavor and a sweet taste from the apple cider in it!
New England Squash Soup
1 cup diced onions
1-2 celery stalks with greens, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ¼ cups apple cider
1 whole butternut squash, peeled,
seeded, and cubed (1-1½ inch cubes)
1 potato, diced
3 cups water or vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dried thyme
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 Tbsp soy sauce
Pinch of dried marjoram
Combine the onions, celery, garlic, and apple cider in a large soup pot. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes until the vegetables soften. Add squash, potato, water or stock, bay leaf, thyme, salt and nutmeg. Bring to a boil, cover, lower the heat and simmer until the vegetables are very soft, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove the soup pot from the heat once the squash and potatoes are soft and working in batches purée the soup with extra water or broth as needed. Add soy sauce and a pinch of marjoram and season with salt and pepper as needed. Reheat gently and enjoy! Serves 4-6