Winter squashes come in all sizes and shapes.
A cold winter evening is just the right kind of weather to fire up the oven and bake the fruits of fall and winter, savory winter squash (and that includes pumpkins). The aroma that drifts through the house will make even the pickiest eater hungry. Best of all, because they store so well, you can usually purchase all types through the winter months.
Most winter squash is Cucurbita moschata; pumpkin is sometimes C. mixta, and sometimes C. pepo or C. maxima.
Winter squash is a long-season plant, and should not be sown outdoors until the soil is quite warm. It needs full sun, plenty of moisture as it ripens the fruits, and fertile soil. It’s important to watch for squash vine borer throughout the season, but otherwise squashes are fairly easy to grow. Just give them plenty of room. If you don’t want to grow your own, shop farmers markets for winter squashes.
Begin harvest in late summer-fall
Winter squash begins ripening in August and continues into October. Although most winter squash can be harvested when young and used like zucchini, the point to growing winter squash is usually to keep them over the winter. Winter squash is ready for harvest when the rind is hard enough so that you cannot make a dent in it with your fingernail. This means it has cured enough to store well. By the time the first frost arrives, the squash should all be ready to harvest.
To control fungal problems in storage, wash squashes well with soap and water. For extra protection, you can dip them in a mixture of one part bleach to six parts water, making sure to get the stem end. Then, they are best stored on wire racks or someplace with good circulation and cool conditions, such as the basement. Squashes should ideally be stored at 50-55° F, and if your basement is warmer than that, be sure to check them periodically for rotting.
New varieties for small spaces
Some newer varieties that are becoming quite popular are dwarf and semi-dwarf forms of the traditional squashes. These produce shorter vines and smaller fruit, making them easier to handle in tight spaces, and easier to cook for two people. Pumpkin is the king of winter squash. We usually connect them with Halloween because of the jack-o-lantern, but they are also really tasty to eat.
Pumpkins, especially small pie pumpkins, make a delicious winter meal.
Pumpkin pie made from fresh pumpkin is unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, and pumpkin is also very good when baked and mashed like potatoes.
For years, the most popular winter squash was acorn squash, mostly because it was commonly available year-round. This baseball-sized green ribbed squash has bright orange flesh. But there are so many others available now that there’s no need to limit yourself. Delicata squash, which is oblong, cream to yellow with dark green stripes, and Sweet Dumplin’ are some of the sweetest squash you’ll ever eat. They have rich orange flesh like a butternut, but are infinitely sweeter. There are hundreds of types of winter squash out there, from buttercup and blue Hubbard to spaghetti and butternut squash.
How to prepare
All it takes to bake most winter squash is to cut them in half and invert them on a rimmed cookie sheet. Remove the seeds before baking, especially if you want to toast them, or you can bake with the seeds intact and remove them after baking. They will come out easier this way.
Bake for an hour or so, depending on the size of the squash, at 350° F and serve with butter, brown sugar, maple syrup, or stuffed with whatever sounds luscious. Flesh should be soft when pierced with a fork. All winter squashes are cooked the same way, and can be interchanged in almost any recipe.
The cooked flesh freezes well, and if you measure it in one-cup batches and place it into freezer bags, it’s ready to pull out for use whenever the mood hits to make muffins or squash bread.
Spaghetti squash is a little different, in that when it is cooked, you can separate the flesh into strands, which really do resemble spaghetti. The “spaghetti” is delicious with a little butter and Parmesan or even spaghetti sauce. And it doesn’t have the high calories of pasta.
A version of this article appeared in a January February 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of MSPhotographic/iStockphoto and Kate Jerome.