Vegan Cooking

Bountiful Winter Squash
by Dreena Burton, author of The Everyday Vegan published by Arsenal Pulp Press

When it comes to warm, nourishing foods, winter squash top most lists. With so many varieties, each with its own look, taste, and texture, winter squash offer much more than ornamental value in kitchens or stores. So as the weather turns colder and the holidays approach, it's a great time to explore nature's bounty of winter squash. We'll start with nutrition, then move to selecting and storing squash, and finish with an easy and delicious soup recipe that will keep the winter chills away!

Nutritional Notes Winter squash is an excellent source of vitamin A, and a very good source of vitamin C, folate and other B-vitamins (except B12), potassium, and fiber. Orange-fleshed varieties are particularly excellent sources of beta-carotene. The deeper the orange color, the bigger the dose! Our bodies convert beta-carotene to Vitamin A, which is essential for healthy skin, vision, and bone development and maintenance. Winter squash are one of the most nutritious vegetables, rivaling cabbage, carrots, potatoes and spinach. They are also one of the few vegetables that do not lose nutritional quality after picking.

Selecting Winter Squash You should look for squash that are heavy for their size, with no soft spots, cuts, breaks, or other blemishes, and with their stems intact if possible. Unlike summer squash, winter squash must be cooked. So when selecting any variety, a good rule of thumb for your recipes is that one pound of whole raw squash will yield roughly one cup when cooked and mashed. Undoubtedly some squash look funny and daunting! I have asked myself, "What does this one taste like, and what in the world would I do with it?" After a little research and some experimentation, I found some varieties that I really love and I'm sure you will too.

The more popular squash varieties include acorn, buttercup, butternut, delicata, hubbard, spaghetti, sweet dumpling, red kuri, and of course, pumpkin! Turban squash is another, but is appreciated mostly for its appearance. Briefly, this how these squash look and taste:

Acorn: This is the small squash that we often see sliced and roasted, or cut in half and baked or stuffed. It is about the size of a softball (sometimes larger), ribbed, and is shaped like - an acorn! The flesh is golden color, with a hint of natural sweetness, but not as sweet as some of the orange-flesh varieties. When selecting, look for a blackish-green skin - the more green on the rind (and less yellow tones), the better. Acorn squash can also have an orange or cream-skinned shell, but the dark green variety is more common.

Buttercup: A highly regarded winter squash, buttercup has a sweet-tasting creamy orange flesh similar to sweet potatoes. The rind is a little thick, however, so baking it whole is easier than peeling or cutting it raw. It has a dark green rind with lighter stripes and has a roundish shape, with a circular gray patch on the blossom (non-stem) end.

Butternut: This is a well-known and often-used variety. The skin is not too thick and can be peeled off when raw. The orange flesh is moist and sweet, with a subtle nutty flavor when cooked. It is usually cylindrical with a bulb-shaped base (like a bell), with a creamy beige skin.

Delicata: This variety is known for its similarity in taste to sweet potatoes, sweet and smooth with a nutty flavor. It has a cylindrical shape, similar to butternut without the bulbous portion. The skin is pale yellow with dark green stripes.

Hubbard: This squash has a tough, bumpy shell, and is usually quite large so is best to bake whole (and maybe stuff) for a group. Round in shape, the skin color can be dark green, blue-green, or orange. The yellow-orange flesh is sweet but can be grainy.

Spaghetti: The squash that doubles as pasta! When cooked, the flesh can be 'pulled' with a fork into moist, slightly sweet and nutty yellow strands that resemble spaghetti. These strands are lovely on their own seasoned with olive oil and herbs, or as an accompaniment to a heavier pasta sauce (such as one with beans). This variety has a smooth light-yellow skin and a cylindrical shape.

Sweet Dumpling: This is a small squash, similar in size to acorn. The flesh is a deep yellow to orange color and a little more creamy, sweet, and dry than that of acorn. The skin color is pale yellow with dark green (and occasionally orange) striping.

Red Kuri: Originally from Japan and also known as "baby red hubbard," this squash has an orange-red skin and is round with a slight teardrop shape. The flesh texture is very smooth and creamy, with a savory chestnut-like flavor.

Pumpkin: Most of us know and have used pumpkins. You may not know, however, that the common Hallowe'en pumpkin is not the best choice for making pies. The sugar pumpkin which is smaller, sweeter, and less watery, is better. Canned pureed pumpkin also works very well for pies.

Turban: This is one squash that may be best for decoration. It has a hard, bumpy shell with a turban shaped form at the blossom end, and can be a combination of orange, yellow, and green. With this tough shell and a less flavorful flesh, you may want to use these as attractive centerpieces!

Storing Winter Squash Most winter squash benefit from sitting at room temperature for a week or two. The exceptions to this rule are acorn, sweet dumpling, and delicata. These varieties should be stored in a cool, dry place like a garage or basement (as should the other varieties after being in room temperature for a couple of weeks). In this cool temperature (45 to 50 degrees), winter squash can be stored from three to six months (smaller varieties have a shorter storage window). You can refrigerate cut pieces of squash, but do not refrigerate whole squash or they will spoil quickly from the humidity.

Recipe On to eating... let's warm up with a delicious and nutritious soup! This recipe is from my first cookbook, The Everyday Vegan. It is creamy with just a hint of curry and ginger. The recipe yields a large batch so you can freeze smaller portions for later. Pair it with a cooked whole grain (brown rice, quinoa, or millet) drizzled with olive oil, a simple green salad and some crusty bread and you have an easy, wonderful meal!

Pureed Curried Squash and Yam Soup Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake squash and yams for roughly 55-60 minutes, or until soft when pierced (the squash may need longer, particularly if using one large squash). Remove from oven and let cool enough to handle. Prepare the other ingredients while the squash and yams are baking and cooling.

Once cooled, slice squash and yams and scoop flesh (no need to mash) from the peels (discard seeds and strings from the squash). In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, celery, sea salt, and fresh ground black pepper. Cover and cook for a few minutes. If the mixture gets dry, add a little water or stock. Stir in garlic, ginger, curry powder, coriander, and cinnamon. Cover and cook for another 4-5 minutes, until the onions soften. Add vegetable stock, 1 cup of water, and squash and yam flesh. Using a hand blender, or transferring the mixture to a food processor, puree the soup until smooth. Add extra water if desired for a thinner soup. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for roughly 10 minutes. Season to taste with extra sea salt and fresh ground black pepper as desired.

Nutritional Analysis (for 10 servings, per serving): Calories: 250; Total Fat: 2.4 g (Sat. Fat: 0.4 g); Cholesterol: 0 mg; Carbohydrate: 52.4g; Fiber: 10.8g; Protein: 4.6g.