The cornucopia of golden colors on our produce shelves heralds the arrival of autumn. Smooth-skinned and warty, stripped and speckled, salami and disk-shaped, dwarf and giant - the gourd family delights the eyes with its beauty and variety.
As I piled a variety of hard-skinned squashes into my cart, a fellow shopper curiously peered in and surveyed my picks. We started to squash schmooze and she wondered how to select and cook the heartier, more intimidating winter squashes. I dished out a little squash back-story, that they are bi-seasonally categorized - summer squash and winter squash. The former are thin-skinned, small-seeded and fragile since they peak in the summer and are harvested when immature, like zucchini, pattypan and yellow crookneck. Winter squash like the butternut, delicata and pumpkins are harvested when the fruits are fully mature, usually early fall through winter, which makes the skins hard and inedible.
For my five faves, let's start with the acorn squash, a small sibling in the family, only about 6 inches around, weighing in at 1 to 2 pounds, shaped like its namesake, an acorn. Baking enhances the sweet flavor of the flesh by caramelizing some of the sugars and - an added bonus - conserves some of the precious nutrients like beta-carotene. Simply cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, dot with butter, sprinkle sea salt and bake until fork tender.
The banana squash is the big mama of the bunch, a sausage-shaped gourd averaging 20 inches in length and topping the scale at 12 pounds. It's usually sold in prepackaged chunks in the supermarket for practicality. It comes in designer shades of blue, orange and pinky-yellow, the latter reminiscent of a banana skin. Its creamy orange flesh is dessert divine and offers a fruity and buttery flavor to your recipe. Bake or steam this squash for a milder flavor, or pan-fry slices like plantains and serve as a Latin side dish.
The beige-colored butternut is a bell-shaped beauty, that's thin-skinned so it can be easily peeled down to its sweet, golden flesh. When baked it enhances its nutty, fragrant taste similar to a sweet potato and can be topped with a maple-pecan crust, melted herb goat cheese, panko bread crumbs, or pureed and added to soups, bread puddings, muffins, souffles, custards and pies.
The delicata (aka peanut or bohemian squash) has a tasty, creamy flesh much like the sweet potato. This squash also has its pedigree papers, an heirloom variety, and recently surfaced into the culinary world after 75 years in hiding. The delicata can be baked like a potato, enjoyed skin and all.
The mini watermelon-shaped spaghetti squash with pseudonyms including noodle squash and "squaghetti" is so called since its flesh morphs into spaghetti-like strands when cooked. Rake out the golden strands with a fork and serve like a pasta dish topped with marinara sauce.
I'd pass on the Hubbard squash, which is bulky and can have a bitter aftertaste. But I love the turban squash as a table centerpiece or a ramekin for fall soups.
Squashes are a powerhouse of nutrients, especially the yellow and orange pulp of the winter gourds, packed with vitamins A, B2 and C, niacin, potassium, fiber, magnesium and iron. Be picky when choosing, making sure the winter squash are firm without cuts, punctures, soft or moldy spots and have a good heft when palmed.
Summer squash should be firm and smooth without blemishes or nicks. The whole package is edible including the skin and seeds. You can steam, saute, stuff or stir fry the zucchinis, yellow crooknecks and starbursts, but even better is a savory and spicy fall ratatouille that you can whip up and enjoy for all seasons. Happy gourding.
Savory Squash Ratatouille
- 1/3 cup of olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 red onion, diced
- 2 zucchini, trimmed, sliced in coins
- 2 yellow crookneck, trimmed and sliced in coins
- 1 starburst squash, cubed
- 3 tablespoons of unbleached flour
- 1 red and 1 green pepper, sliced in strips
- 6 ripe tomatoes (I prefer heirlooms), sliced
- 1 tablespoon of capers
- Sea salt and cayenne pepper to taste
In a large skillet, heat the oil on medium and saute the onion and garlic until tender.
Flour the squash and add to the skillet, along with the peppers. Cover and simmer for one hour. Uncover and add the tomatoes, continue simmering until the ratatouille thickens. Season with salt, cayenne and capers and cook for another 10 minutes. Serve hot or cold.