Produce Pete: Savor the Season for Squash

How to select, cut, store and cook a range of colorful varieties.

Produce Pete on NBC 4 New York's "Weekend Today in New York"
Produce Pete shows winter squash on a recent segment for NBC 4 New York's "Weekend Today in New York." Courtesy of Pete Napolitano/NBC

From acorn and butternut to delicata, spaghetti, turban and other popular varieties, winter squash are some of the most delicious and versatile ingredients of the season. Unlike summer squash, these are harvested in autumn, when they’re hard and ripe. Most can be stored and enjoyed for use throughout the winter.

Cutting a winter squash can present an interesting challenge. Years ago, on NBC 4 New York’s Weekend Today in New York, I did a segment on winter squash. I put on goggles and heavy gloves and pulled out a chainsaw from under the counter. It was a joke, but it wasn’t too far off the mark. The problem is that the shell is very hard, the squash tends to roll, and the blade of a knife can slip off the smooth skin.

To help prevent such hassle at home, supermarkets have increasingly offered fruits and vegetables pre-cut, though the price for this service can cost as much as triple that of an uncut item. Our family comes from humble post-WWII beginnings, and I remember my mom always cutting and preparing produce herself. I encourage consumers to consider taking on this worthy challenge.

A variety of winter squash

Winter squash are harvested in autumn, when they’re hard and ripe. Courtesy of Susan Bloom

A broad range of colorful winter squash is now available at your supermarket or farmer’s market. Here are a few of my favorite varieties:

Acorn squash: Small in size (typically 1–2 pounds), acorn squash have orange-yellow flesh, a thick, dark green-and-orange skin, and a mild, subtly sweet, nutty flavor. Their skin is edible. Like most winter varieties, acorn squash can be baked, roasted, steamed, sautéed or even cooked in the microwave.

Butternut squash: Often considered the sweetest of winter squash, this pear-shaped variety has a smooth, cream-colored exterior with bright orange flesh and relatively few seeds. Butternut is perfect for roasting, sautéeing or making into a smooth purée or soup.

Carnival squash: The pumpkin-shaped carnival squash has pale-yellow skin with green markings; it often ranges from 5 to 7 inches in diameter. Unlike summer squash (which are picked immature, their skins tender and edible), carnival squash have hard, thick skins, and only the flesh is eaten. The delicious yellow meat is reminiscent of sweet potatoes and butternut squash, and can be baked or steamed, then combined with butter and fresh herbs.

Delicata squash: Also known as sweet potato squash (because it has creamy flesh with a mild flavor akin to sweet potatoes), this small cylindrical squash has thin cream-to-yellow skin with green stripes and orange-yellow flesh. Delicatas are smaller than most winter squashes, so they’re easy to prepare and cook. The skin is edible, so don’t worry about cutting it off. Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, then either bake it as is or cut it into slices, which can be roasted, sautéed or steamed. Delicata is also ideal for stuffing.

Hubbard squash: Hubbard is one of the largest varieties and has a rich, sweet pumpkin flavor. Its firm exterior ranges from deep green to gray or blue. While the exterior is generally discarded, the sweet orange flesh can be substituted for any other winter squash. It’s ideal for both cooking and baking, and is especially great for making pie.

Spaghetti squash: Spaghetti squash has a cylindrical shape with a firm exterior ranging in color from pale cream to bright yellow. The moist flesh develops strands that resemble spaghetti when cooked. Spaghetti squash doesn’t actually taste like spaghetti, however; it has a tender, chewy, fragile texture and a very mild flavor. Unlike other winter squashes, it lacks sweetness. Roast or steam it, then scrape out the strands, top them with marinara sauce or pesto (or mix in other veggies), and eat it as you would spaghetti.

Sweet dumpling squash: Known for its bright orange-to–dark green striations, this small yellow squash may be the cutest of the bunch. The flesh is starchy and sweet with a flavor reminiscent of corn. The small, single-serving size of this squash makes it ideal for stuffing and roasting.

Turban squash: This large squash has an irregular turban shape with a dull-looking, bumpy exterior that can range in color from mottled green to orange and yellow. It has a very mild, nutty flavor. Turban squash is most often used as a decoration, though you can use it in recipes in just about any way you’d use butternut, acorn or other winter squashes. Hollowed out, it makes a beautiful soup tureen.

MORE FUN FACTS ABOUT SQUASH

  • Winter squash is high in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins A and C, and polysaccharides, which can help regulate and/or control blood sugar.
  • Technically all winter squash skin is edible, but the thinner the skin, the more pleasant the texture, as with delicata, acorn and sweet dumpling varieties. Thicker skins are usually too tough to chew and enjoy, so they might be better saved to make vegetable stock.
  • Winter squash is botanically classified as a fruit, but for culinary purposes is treated like a vegetable.

SELECTION & STORAGE

Squash should have a solid, heavy feel; a squash that feels light for its size may be soft and dehydrated inside. The hard shell of a winter squash should be undamaged, but the skin—unlike that of summer squashes—should be dull, indicating the squash was picked fully mature. Make sure the stem is attached: A missing stem indicates the squash has been in storage too long.

Never refrigerate squash unless it’s been cut. Wrap cut squash in plastic and store for only a day or two before using. The smaller the winter squash, the shorter its shelf life; acorn, for example, should be used within two to three weeks of purchase. Some of the larger varieties of winter squash will remain sweet and tasty for up to 6 or 7 months if kept in a dry, cool (but not cold) place, out of direct sunlight.

PREPARATION

A kitchen saw or even a small handsaw will make short work of it. But another reasonably simple way is to look for the area on the squash that has indentations or ribs. Lay the squash down so it’s steady, insert the point of a sturdy knife in a crease and give the handle a couple of taps with a hammer to start the cut. Proceed extremely carefully, as if you were cutting a watermelon. Remove the seeds before cooking.

Smaller winter squash like acorn are best when baked. Cut them in half, brush with butter, sprinkle with brown sugar and bake for about 30 minutes or until tender. Very large varieties like butternut can be peeled, cut into chunks and boiled 10–20 minutes or until tender; the chunks can then be puréed or prepared as you would mashed potatoes.

Spaghetti squash is best when baked whole in a moderately hot oven for 1–1.5 hours, depending on the size of the squash. Pierce the squash in two or three places before baking so it can release steam. After it’s done, cut in half and use a fork to remove the flesh, which looks and handles like spaghetti. You can then toss it with marinara sauce or top it with butter or cheese. Many people also like to eat spaghetti squash cold, tossed with a vinaigrette.

Winter squash is delicious when added to soups and stews, or when sliced, battered and fried. Before frying, remember to pre-cook squash in water until flesh is tender-crisp.

There’s no reason to ever throw out the seeds in a squash. One of our household’s favorite items every fall is my wife Bette’s DIY baked squash seeds, a tasty and nutritious treat. As cooler weather descends upon us and the landscape begins to brim with colorful fall foliage, I know you’ll be hooked on this classic autumn snack.

BETTE’S EASY DIY BAKED WINTER SQUASH SEEDS

After scooping out the seeds from the center of a winter squash of your choice, wash and dry the seeds with a paper towel. Don’t worry about removing all the stringy material around the seeds; it will shrivel when roasted.

Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and drizzle with oil, being sure to mix the oil into the seeds with your hands to coat well. Sprinkle a pinch of salt or any other herbs or seasonings desired (if you prefer a sweeter taste, try cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice or nutmeg). Roast at 275–300 degrees for 20–25 minutes, or until seeds start to brown. (It’s preferable to cook seeds at a lower temperature in order to prevent the breakdown of the unsaturated fats.) Then cool and enjoy!


About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author and television personality who’s appeared on a highly popular segment on NBC 4 New York’s Weekend Today in New York, broadcast every Saturday morning for over 27 years. For more information, visit Pete’s website.

About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning, New Jersey–based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with “Produce Pete” on a broad range of articles for more than a decade.

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