Question: Last year at Thanksgiving, our hosts served baked squash as a part of the dinner. It was delicious. Can you tell me more about this vegetable?
Answer: Almost all types of squash are native to South America. Squash is thought to be the first food cultivated by Native Americans. There are two types of squash. Summer squash (yellow crick neck and zucchini) develops quickly, has a thin skin and does not store well. Winter squash is still grown in the summer but matures later in the season. It has a much thicker rind and can be stored for longer periods.
All types of squash belong to the gourd family, which is characterized by vining plants that require bees and other insects for pollination because male and female flowers develop separately on the vines. Wild forms of squash are generally harshly bitter to humans. Interestingly, there is evidence that they were harmless to mastodons. Wild squash plants were eventually domesticated by native inhabitants of the Americas to develop edible and less bitter fruits. Winter squash fruits were also used for soup and beverage containers and fishing weights as bobbers or net weights.
Pumpkins are also squash with mostly larger fruits that are generally smooth. The word “pumpkin” is derived from the old French term pompion, meaning eaten when “cooked by the sun,” or ripe. Pilgrims hollowed out a pumpkin, filled it with apples, sugar, spices and milk, then put the stem back on and baked like a pie.
The most common and practical squash to cook for the holidays include acorn: (Cream of the Crop, Table Ace, King, or Queen), butternut: (Butterbush, Early Butternut and Waltham), and true winter: (Buttercup, Honey Delight, Gold Nugget, Mooregold).
To cook winter squash, simply cut the squash in half. Pierce the squash in several locations with a long-tined fork or metal skewer; piercing prevents the shell from bursting during cooking. Place the squash cut sides down on a shallow baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or longer. Check for doneness by piercing with a fork or skewer or by squeezing the shell. When it gives a bit with pressure, it is done. When tender, remove from the oven and cool. One can serve as is with butter and maple syrup or spoon out the soft flesh and mash with a fork or food processor. Peeled pieces can be cut into cubes and boiled or baked until tender. One can also microwave squash pieces on high for 15 minutes or longer. Pureed soups may be made by blending mashed squash with vegetable or chicken stock and spices.
The larger squash varieties such as Hubbard squash are more difficult to cook, and the flesh can be tough and stringy. Winter squash is quite nutritious and delicious and makes a great addition to a holiday meal. Organic non-GMO winter squash is increasingly available.
The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Saturday. Kemery retired as the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service.