by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
One of the vegetables I always look forward to in the fall to winter season is winter squash. It provides a whopping amount of nutrients!! Another big bonus is that there is a bounty of it from local farms, one of which is High Meadows in Putney, VT. We are lucky to have it available in the produce department at the Co-op!
The word "squash" is derived from the Native American word, askutasquash meaning “eaten raw or uncooked.” At the time this word came into use, squash was more often eaten raw or uncooked but nowadays it is mainly used cooked. Winter squash are members of the gourd or cucurbit family along with cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and summer squash, which are their cousins. They are known for their hard shell, hollow inner seed-filled cavities, and delicious nutrition-packed sweet flesh. Their hard shells enable them to be stored late into the winter and even into the early spring. This is one of the main reasons they continue to be a staple food for New Englanders.
Winter squash originated in South America. It made its way north to New England in the late 1700s. Native Americans relied on winter squash for a major part of their nutrition during winter months since they could be stored for long periods. They knew they provided so much nutrition that they made a practice of burying their dead with winter squash to nourish them on their journey into their new life.
Winter squash provide an abundance of nutrients and have many health properties. Anyone living in this area should make a point of eating this delectable vegetable on a regular basis during the fall and winter months. Very few foods provide such a highly concentrated form of carotenoids; they top the list! They contain a gold mine of alpha- and beta-carotene and other important carotenoids such as zeaxanthin, lutein, and beta-cryptoxanthin. Their bountiful supply of carotenoids has been proven to be instrumental in optimal eye health. In addition to the carotenoids, winter squash contains a significant amount of fiber, potassium, manganese, vitamin C, and several B vitamins. It is true winter squash is very starchy (90 percent carbohydrate) but these carbohydrates have special attributes. Research is showing that winter squash has specially structured carbohydrate sugars containing pectin lining 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 of squash as well. One B-vitamin-like compound found in squash that 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 conducted has shown that squash has the ability to block the formation of cholesterol. It also contains omega-3 fats, about 340 mg per cup of squash, which is not nearly as high as some other plant sources like walnuts but it shouldn’t be ignored if you are following a diet to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Winter squash is an important vegetable to buy organic too since it is one of the Dirty Dozen, the list published by the Environmental Working Group of produce with the most concentrated pesticide residues. An important attribute of planting winter squash is that it has been shown to be instrumental in reversing the damage to 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.
Nature has created an amazing array of squash of all colors, in unique shapes and sizes. There are at least 25 different varieties available in Vermont. 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. I have found that butternut holds up longer than any other squash. Over the last few years I have kept some until early May. A cool dark storage area is the secret to long-term storage of winter squash and you can also freeze cooked squash for use all through the winter and early spring. Squash can be prepared in many ways but I generally bake, roast, or steam them, and use them in soups, breads, cookies, stir fries, burritos, and pies. It is a great tasty treat on a cold fall night. Roasting winter squash couldn’t be simpler: cut them in half, remove the seeds, and peel off the outer skin. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the squash into half-inch pieces. Place them in a single layer with other root vegetables such as beets, if desired, in a 9-by-13 inch rectangular pan. Drizzle olive oil over the squash and toss so that all the pieces have some oil on them. Bake for about 20 to 30 minutes until tender, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes to ensure the pieces cook equally.
Another delicious treat is using squash in muffins, bread, or even pancakes. Try the recipe below for a delicious moist quick bread–the recipe can be used for muffins as well.