By Teresa Marrone
When summer wanes and the trees begin to turn, look for winter squash at the market; they’re at their peak in fall, but many are available from summer through late winter. Unlike soft-skinned summer squash such as zucchini, winter squash have hard rinds and can be stored at room temperature for weeks—even months, in some cases. The rinds are hard and inedible (except in the case of the delicata squash; see below); if the rind must be removed before cooking, as when sautéeing, care must be taken so the knife doesn’t slip off the hard rind and cause an injury. To cut a squash in half, use a heavy chef’s knife and rock it carefully to work through the squash; for really tough squash, a heavy-backed cleaver can be used, tapping it carefully with a hammer.
Winter squash is rich in vitamins A and C; the deeper the color, the more nutritious it is. Acorn and butternut squash are probably the most familiar winter squash, but there are many other types that offer a variety of flavors and textures.
- Spaghetti squash is rapidly becoming as common as acorn and butternut squash. Unlike other winter squash, its flesh isn’t solid; rather, it separates into spaghetti-like strands after it’s cooked, giving the squash its alternate moniker, “vegetable spaghetti.” This oval-shaped squash is pale yellow, with a smooth rind, and generally weighs two to five pounds. To prepare, cut it in half crosswise, scoop out the seeds, and place it cut-side down in a baking dish with a little water. Bake or microwave until just tender (timing depends on size), then scrape out the strands, fluffing them to separate. Spaghetti squash is bland on its own, but takes well to sauces and aggressive seasoning.
- Delicata’s name says a lot: this is a small heirloom squash that fell out of favor with the vegetable trade because its skin is so thin that it is more difficult to transport and store than other winter squash. It’s making a huge comeback, with good reason; its flesh is tender and sweet, with a flavor that is reminiscent of roasted corn crossed with sweet potatoes, and the skin is so thin that it can be eaten, a rarity among winter squash. Delicata are oblong, generally five to eight inches long and a little over half as wide; they have cream-colored to yellowish rinds with moderately deep, green-striped grooves. Cut them in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds, then bake or steam the squash; or, try the recipe for Grilled Delicata Squash Rings.
- Sweet dumpling is another very small squash, typically weighing less than a half-pound. It looks like a small, ivory-colored pumpkin with green grooves; the stem end is deeply depressed, forming a natural cup. The flesh is deep orange, with a creamy texture and a sweet taste. Sweet dumplings are a good size for individual servings. Cut the top off and scoop out the seeds, then bake or microwave the whole squash. For a nice presentation, the squash can be stuffed either before or after baking.
- Hubbard squash range in size from large to ginormous—they can top out at 50 pounds. Hubbard is seldom seen in its whole state; typically, the squash is cut and sold in large chunks. At the market, look for plastic-wrapped chunks of yellow-fleshed squash with a thick, warty rind (blue-gray or green, depending on variety). After peeling, Hubbard squash can be sliced or cubed, then roasted or sautéed. Steamed or boiled Hubbard squash is often puréed and used for soup or pie filling.
- Banana squash is another behemoth in the squash world. This oblong squash grows to three feet in length, so it is usually cut into smaller pieces, which are individually wrapped for sale. The rind is tan or cream-colored, much like a butternut squash; the flesh is a sunny golden color, with a fine texture. Cook it as described for Hubbard squash (above).
- Buttercup has sweet, rich, yellowish-orange flesh that is dense and somewhat dry. They are round in cross-section; the sides may be rounded or squat-looking (somewhat squared off). Rinds are dark green with thin, pale stripes, and may have numerous small pale splotches. The blossom end often—but not always—has a ring-edged, pale-green bulge that is sometimes compared to an acorn cap. Buttercups generally weigh two to four pounds. They work well for steaming or baking, methods that keep the flesh from drying out.
- Autumn cup is a buttercup hybrid that is slightly more squat but has the same striped green rind; its flesh is particularly sweet. Ambercup is another buttercup relative, but it has an orange rind and looks like a small, squat pumpkin with a dull, somewhat rough surface; it keeps particularly well.
- Finally, turban squash is yet another buttercup relative. This larger squash has a large, swollen cap end that gives the squash a turban-like appearance; it is multi-colored, typically orange and green with white stripes. The flesh is golden-yellow and nutty. Because of its unusual shape and bright colors, it is often used as an ornamental squash in fall displays.
- Kabocha is a squat, dark-green squash that resembles the buttercup, but lacks the ringed cap on the bottom. The rind is rough-textured with shallow, pale-green grooves, and the squash generally weighs two to three pounds. The flesh is deep yellowish to orange; when steamed or baked, it is moist and somewhat loose in texture, with a nutty, almost woodsy taste that has been compared to chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins. It is a common ingredient in vegetable tempura.
- Carnival squash resemble acorn squash in shape, with a flattened top, a pointed bottom and deep, rounded grooves on the sides; they’re typically five to seven inches across, and about as high. The color is variable; often they have pale-yellow rinds with orange grooves and scattered dark-green speckles, while other times they look like an acorn squash that got dipped partway in yellow or orange paint and then spattered with white. The yellow flesh is sweet and moist. Like acorn squash, carnival squash should be cut in half and seeded, then baked, steamed, or microwaved. Try baking one cut-side up, with a knob of butter and some brown sugar or maple syrup in the cavity; dust it lightly with coarse salt and a bit of pepper before serving.