Squash is a culinary highlight of late summer and fall. You may see them heaped in bins at your local market and, if you’ve never cooked one, their strange shapes and perplexing varieties can be intimidating.
Fear not! With a wide variety in taste, texture and cooking versatility, plus their abundance of nutrition, squash makes an ideal addition to your diet all year long.
“As a complex carbohydrate, squash gives you more fiber, vitamins and minerals along with the carbohydrate, which is what we aim for to support good nutritional habits,” said Emily Webber, PA, with Samaritan Albany Surgical Associates. “They also have a lower glycemic load, which means they won’t spike the body’s sugar levels as much as other carbohydrate sources, which is especially important for diabetics.”
Squash can be divided into summer and winter varieties.
Many are familiar with summer’s bestsellers like dark-green zucchini and the bottle-shaped yellow summer squash, but you may not know about patty pan squash. The approximate size of a baseball with scalloped edges and a shape reminiscent of a flying saucer, patty pan is most often a golden yellow, but you may also find it in white or green. All three of these summer squash varieties are light in texture with thin, edible skin and seeds. Because of their more delicate skin, they have a relatively short shelf life, but can be chopped and frozen for later use.
“These squash varieties are high in vitamins and minerals, such as folate, manganese, vitamins A and C and potassium, important to cell growth and repair, eye and skin health and boosting the immune system,” explained Webber. “Yellow summer squash even has more potassium than a banana.”
Try steaming, baking or grilling any of the three, and finish with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Also, zucchini makes a good pasta substitute. Use a spiralizer or vegetable peeler to shave zucchini into thin ribbons, then steam them and add your favorite sauce to enjoy a “pasta” dish higher in fiber and nutrition than the more traditional pasta dish.
In the waning days of summer as the weather cools and our appetites crave heartier foods, winter squash ripens. Because of their dense texture and thick skins, these varieties can typically be found in grocery stores throughout the winter and make perfect additions to soups and stews. In most cases, the skin, rind and seeds are removed before eating, although pumpkin seeds, especially, make a nutritious, tasty snack when baked in the oven with a bit of salt and pepper.
Common varieties include acorn (shaped like an acorn and dark green in color), butternut (a pale beige color and shaped like an hourglass), spaghetti squash (golden yellow in color and oval shaped), kabocha (round-shaped and dark green in color, often with white spots), and pumpkin.
These winter squash varieties are rich in vitamins and minerals with only small differences between them, Webber noted.
“Acorn squash has a good amount of vitamin C and B, magnesium and folate. The orange flesh in butternut, kabocha and pumpkin make them high in antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamin C. Spaghetti squash is on the lower end of the carbohydrate spectrum within the winter squash category, which makes it a good source to help someone cut their carb intake but still get hearty squash in their diet,” Webber said.
Ways to Prepare Winter Squash
Half the battle with preparing winter squash can be removing the rind and seeds.
“I’ve found that if you microwave them for four or five minutes, the squash is then soft enough to cut the skins off and easily scoop out the seeds,” Webber said.
Spaghetti squash can make a good substitute for spaghetti noodles. Cut the squash in half, bake in a casserole dish in about an inch of water, and when soft, use a fork to scrape out the stringy meat of the squash. Add a little olive oil and parmesan cheese, or your favorite marinara sauce, and enjoy!
Winter squash is good when added to soups or stews, or stuffed with a whole grain and meat mixture, like brown rice and sausage, and baked.
After removing the rind and seeds, you could also cut squash into cubes and bake until just softened and then add to salads for a warming winter addition. Try replacing rice with squash in a burrito or add to enchiladas. Consider baking Thanksgiving dressing in a halved acorn squash for a healthier alternative to stuffing the turkey.
If your squash is too big for one meal, cut it up and freeze in a freezer bag.
“Just be sure to season squash well because it can be bland without it,” Webber noted.
Try your local farmers’ market when open for these and some of the more uncommon varieties. With so many options and easy accessibility, you are likely to find a squash variety that appeals to your tastebuds.