Hearty squash: A seasonal tradition

Fall in the mountains offers a transformation from outward living to turning within, and a somewhat ominous glimpse of the long winter ahead. Often underrated and quite misunderstood, squash is the epitome of fall—its protective shell shelters its gifts from the elements; once cracked open, though, squash is adaptable and tender.

The word “squash”, or askutasquash, translates into “eaten raw or uncooked” in the language of Narragansett Native Americans, aboriginal people in the Rhode Island region. Many native tribes throughout the Americas cultivated a trio of staple produce--corn, beans and squash—which relied on each other for structure, protection and nutrients. One of the oldest known American crops, squash shoots, leaves, flowers and seeds were eaten, and the inner flesh traditionally roasted, boiled or preserved in syrup.

Modern American winter squash cuisine is influenced by early settlers, who preferred heartier squash prepared with animal fat and sweetened with maple syrup or honey. “Winter” squashes are typically tough-skinned and larger, and can endure colder weather than their immature summertime cousins. Because they store well in cool pantries and cellars, squash is an ideal winter fruit.

Dozens of varieties range from orange to blue, from small scale to the Atlantic Giants, weighing in at 600 pounds with enough inner flesh to make 300 pies! Pilgrims hollowed out more manageable pumpkins, added apples, sugar, spices and milk, then put the stems back on to bake—this was the first known pumpkin pie.

Versatile in flavor and texture, winter squash varieties are incredibly nourishing, touting richness in antioxidant vitamins A and C, energy-stimulating B vitamins and minerals copper, magnesium, manganese and potassium. Seeds are particularly high in vitamin E. Squash is also a viable source of plant-based protein and omega-3 fatty acids, and, despite their “high-carb” reputation, they measure low on the glycemic index (until we drown them in maple syrup, that is!), helping regulate blood sugar. Pectin, a fiber known to fruit, is prevalent in winter squashes, further contributing to squash satiety.

Most impressive is the abundance of “phytonutrients” in orange varieties and, to a lesser extent (albeit still impressive), yellow varieties. Two well-known and highly beneficial plant nutrients, alpha- and beta-carotene, are accompanied by 10 other carotenoids from auroxanthin to zeaxanthin that convert into vitamin A—essential for healthy vision, immune function, reproduction, mucus membranes, skin, skeletal tissues, organ function and more! Additionally, squash is high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant “phenol” compounds touted for their medicinal properties.

So, what to do with acorn, butternut, blue Hokkaido, delicata, Hubbard, kabocha, sugar pie pumpkin, red kuri, spaghetti, sweet dumpling and turban squash?

Remove and save seeds, then bake quartered or halved Hubbards and kuri with skin on. Scoop out the flesh and puree into homemade mac and cheese or spiced coconut squash soup. Peeled and cubed, butternut squash makes a great addition to a corn chili or tacos. With skin on, roasted delicata half-moons is an easy side dish or, cooked longer, savory chips! Acorn squash begs to be stuffed with wild rice, sage and elk. Kids love to help rinse, roast and eat seeds, which add a crunchy garnish to meals. Be creative and savor this age-old winter favorite.

Jamie Truppi, MSN, is an integrative nutritionist focusing on functional foods and family wellness.

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