Where would Italian cuisine be without America? Strange as it might sound, just imagine how astonishingly different Italian food would be without tomatoes to make pasta sauces or corn for creamy polenta. Think of the gastronomic delights we would be missing! Take zucchini, a type of squash. They’ve become so intertwined with Italian cooking and culture, that Americans even call them by their Italian name –– although they originated on this side of the globe. In fact, just like tomatoes and corn, squash of all shapes and sizes were yet another culinary gift from the new world. Part of the large cucurbitaceae family –– which includes everything from pumpkins and winter squash to zucchini, melons, and cucumbers –– are said to have originated in the South American Andes and were grown in several parts of the American continent well before Columbus ever set foot on it.
So, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that here in the U.S. the fall season is associated with pumpkins and winter squash. Yet, most of us have a rather superficial acquaintance with them, often limited to the Halloween Jack-o-Lantern, a few pretty ornamentals, lots of pumpkin pie, and the occasional squash soup. But try walking through a farmers market these days, and you’ll be hit by an astounding assortment of squash of all colors and forms, from traditional orange pumpkins to smaller delicata and butternut squash to big hubbards. What other food can be mashed to make comforting soups and delicate purées, stuffed into ravioli, used in a flavorful risotto or hollowed out to look like a scary skull lit from within by a candle?
Although called “winter” squash, these fruits really start appearing in late summer and keep growing through December –– some kinds grow even further into the winter. Unlike summer squash, such as zucchini or yellow squash, which are harvested and eaten in the immature stages when the rind is still soft, winter squash are harvested when the fruit is fully mature and the rind is hard. Yes, I said fruit. All squash are botanically fruits. But can be used as a fruit or a vegetable.
If you’re a squash newcomer whose experience is confined to pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream, start out with a butternut or a delicata squash and you won’t be disappointed. Butternut squash are light beige with a peanut-like shape, and they taste somewhat like sweet potatoes. Delicata squash are smaller and narrower, their rind is usually yellow with a few green streaks and the flavor is delicate.
Other culinary favorites include acorn squash, a round globe, with even groves around the entire squash. They are mostly dark green, with occasional splotches of orange and yellow, that make a hearty soup; hubbard, a large, bumpy and thick-skinned squash with a fairly sweet flavor; kabocha, a drier, flakier type with a round shape and a flattened top, green in color with occasional white stripes; and spaghetti squash, which has nothing to do with the pasta, but is so called because its flesh is stringy and turns into strands that resemble spaghetti when cooked.
Native Americans once believed squash was so nutritious that they buried it along with the dead to provide them nourishment on their final journey. Squash were originally grown for the seeds because they were believed to increase fertility; however, with the evolution of squash, plants produced fruit that had a thicker skin, fewer seeds and less waste.
The hard-shelled squash species are uniquely American. The earliest natives revered them, and gave them the honor of being one of the “Three Sisters”. Beans and corn completed the trio, and without those foods for sustenance, many ancient peoples would have ceased to exist. The Three Sisters were vital to many civilizations. The corn and the beans made a complete protein, the squash supplied beta carotene, Omega 3 and Potassium. Whole communities could survive on these alone, if game and other foods were scarce. They were also one of the first companion plantings, each contributing to the growth and well-being of the others. The corn supplied support for the beans to climb on, and shade for the squash plants during the heat of the day. The squash plants large leaves shaded the ground, prevented weeds, and deterred hungry wildlife that didn’t like to walk through the fuzzy vines. The beans fixed nitrogen in the soil to feed the corn and the squash.
The European conquerors carried the squash back across the Atlantic, and many varieties were created around the Mediterranean Basin. Winter squash never caught on in the more northern parts of Europe though, as the climate was too cool, and the season did not last long enough to properly grow them. France, Spain and Italy are European countries which have embraced the squash, and raised its cultivation to an art form with many unique varieties springing from that area. Wonderful varieties have been developed in Australia also, as the climate there is quite hospitable to raising winter squash.
Although types of gourds were found in tombs of Egypt, the butternut squash and its family members including the pumpkin and the calabaza are new world, native Americans. The butternut is the new kid on the block having made its appearance in 1944.
Most people ask what the difference is between a winter squash and a pumpkin. A pumpkin is just another hard-shelled winter squash. What makes winter squash different from a summer squash? It’s simply the time of year in which they are eaten. The early American settlers gave them those designations. Summer squash are soft-skinned vegetables which grew quickly, and were eaten soon after harvest. Winter squash grew the thick, hard rinds that made them suitable for storing through the long winters when fresh vegetables were a precious commodity.
Winter squash comes in many shapes, sizes, textures and flavors. Chances are, there will be one variety out there that will suit your family. Here are a few popular ones.
The ‘Waltham Butternut’ is a smooth-skinned squash with a meaty texture. It is prolific and easy to grow. It keeps well in a cool, dark storage area, and it’s small enough that 1 squash will feed an average family.
The ‘Blue Hubbard‘ is a huge, heavy squash that requires more than just a paring knife to open it. The thick rind needs a small hatchet or saw to cut it open, but it will keep well into spring with nothing much more than a dry, cool spot. Not for the ‘Squash Novice’ as it occasionally will reach over 30 pounds, and 1 squash feeds a small army. The flesh is smooth and not stringy, somewhat on the dry side, but quite pleasing.
‘Carnival’ is a variety of acorn squash found in many supermarkets, and is a great selection for a two person meal. Use the squash as the main meal instead of meat, stuffing the halves with a seasoned rice mixture. Each person being served their own personal, edible bowl. For a simple side dish, simply drizzle with butter and brown sugar before baking.
The rind should be firm and unbroken with a uniform matte coloring. Squash should feel heavy for their size (indicating a high moisture content – squash gradually lose water after harvesting). Bigger squash generally have a more highly developed flavor.
Squash are amongst the longest keeping vegetables. In a cool (not refrigerator-cold), dry, well-ventilated place they can keep for three months or more. At room temperature, or in the refrigerator, they will deteriorate more quickly, but should be fine for at least a couple of weeks.
The hard rind, dense flesh and awkward shape mean that squash require careful cutting. Use a large knife or cleaver to make a shallow cut down the length of the squash (curves permitting). Place the blade in the cut and knock the back of the blade (using your hand, a wooden mallet or rolling pin) until the squash is cut in half lengthways. Scoop out the seeds and any fibrous-strings . If you require chunks of squash, cut a small piece off each end, enabling you to stand it vertically and trim off the rind before slicing and dicing.
Squash should be cooked until tender. Baking a halved squash is an excellent way of preserving and intensifying its flavors. Cubes can also be added to casseroles. Boiling is quicker than baking but will result in some sugars being absorbed into the water and so is best used for dishes (such as soups) where the flavored water forms part of the dish rather than being discarded.
Save the Seeds!
The seeds of winter squash are delicious when toasted. Rinse them well and pat dry. Toss them lightly in oil and a little salt, spread them on a sheet pan, and bake at 250 degrees for about 1 hour. If you’d like to brown the seeds slightly, turn on the broiler for the last 4-5 minutes of baking. Let cool and store in a sealable bag or jar with a lid. Not only do they taste great, they’re nutritious and good for you!
Winter Squash Polenta
Makes about 4 cups
- 3 pounds winter squash
- Olive oil
- Salt & pepper
Set oven to 400 degrees F. Carefully cut the squash in half either lengthwise or crosswise. Scoop out the seeds and rub olive oil on the flesh, season with salt and pepper, then place cut-side down on a baking sheet. Place in the oven and roast until a knife easily inserts into the thickest part of the flesh, for about an hour. Let cool a bit. Scoop out the flesh and mash with a potato masher or a fork.
- 2 cups water
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup coarse stone-ground cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or Smart Balance Blend
- 8 ounces grated fresh Parmesan, divided
- Salt & pepper
Bring the water to a boil in a medium nonstick saucepan on medium heat. Stir in the salt. Slowly stir in the cornmeal with a whisk. Reduce heat to medium low, cover and set timer for 5 minutes. When timer goes off, check to see if it’s cooking at a slow simmer, adjust heat accordingly and whisk gently for a minute. Repeat every 5 minutes, adjusting temperature and whisking. When it thickens, uncover and stir for 2 – 3 minutes. Stir in the butter and three quarters of the Parmesan and stir until melted. Stir in the cooked squash and combine well. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Transfer to a greased baking dish. [If you're cooking ahead, stop here and refrigerate. Return to room temperature.] Top with reserved Parmesan. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 60 minutes.
Top with oven roasted vegetables or Italian tomato meat sauce.
Butternut Squash Risotto
- 4 cups homemade or low-salt chicken broth; more as needed
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 ounces pancetta, diced
- 10 large fresh sage leaves
- 2 medium shallots, minced (about 1/4 cup)
- 2 cups 1/4-inch-diced peeled butternut squash
- 1-1/2 cups Arborio or other risotto rice
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine the chicken broth and wine in a small saucepan and set over medium heat.
In a medium (3-qt.) saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sage leaves and cook, turning once, until they’ve turned dark green in most places, about 1 minute total. Don’t brown. With a fork, transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
Put the pancetta in the saucepan and cook, stirring occasionally, until nicely browned, 5 to 7 minutes and transfer to the plate with the sage.
Add the shallots to the saucepan and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until softened, about 1 minute. Add the squash and rice and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Ladle in enough of the hot broth mixture to just cover the rice. Cook, stirring frequently, until the broth is mostly absorbed.
Add another ladle of broth and continue cooking, stirring, and adding more ladles of broth as the previous additions are absorbed, until the rice is tender with just a slight bite, about 25 minutes. As the risotto cooks, adjust the heat so that it bubbles gently. The broth mixture needn’t be boiling; it should just be hot. If you use all the broth and wine before the rice gets tender, use more broth but not more wine.
Set aside 4-6 sage leaves as a garnish (1 leaf per serving). Crumble the pancetta and the remaining sage leaves into the risotto. Stir in the Parmigiano. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish each serving with a sage leaf.
Serves six as a primo (first) course, or four as a second course.
Spaghetti Squash Casserole
- 1 spaghetti squash, halved lengthwise and seeds removed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 cup (8 ounces) skim ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded low-fat mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 tablespoons seasoned dry bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Coat a 13″ x 9″ baking dish and a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Place the squash, cut side down, on the sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a sharp knife. With a fork, scrape the squash strands into a large bowl.
Meanwhile, warm the oil in a medium skillet set over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and basil. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the onion is soft. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the mixture is dry.
To the bowl with the squash, add the ricotta cheese, mozzarella, parsley, salt, and the onion mixture. Stir to mix. Pour into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the Parmesan and bread crumbs.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until bubbly, heated through and the top is brown.
Winter Squash Gratin
- 2 medium butternut squash (or any winter squash of choice) (1 1/2 pounds each)
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 medium leek, white part only, coarsely chopped (1/2 cup)
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
- One 12-ounce can evaporated skim milk
- 1/2 teaspoon honey
- 2 ounces of a baguette (thinly cut into 8 small slices) or 2 slices peasant bread (cut into 4 equal pieces), toasted
- 4 ounces Italian Fontina cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese
- 8 basil leaves, shredded
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Halve the squash lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place the squash, cut side up, in a baking pan. Season with 1/2 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper and cover tightly with foil. Bake for about 1 hour, until the squash are tender but not mushy. Let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, combine the leek, olive oil and 2 teaspoons of water. Cover and cook over moderately low heat until the leek is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Uncover and stir in the wine. Increase the heat to high and boil until the liquid is reduced to approximately 3 tablespoons, about 3 minutes. Stir in the broth, milk, honey and remaining 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
Using a big spoon, scoop the flesh from the squash in large pieces. Place in a medium bowl.
To assemble the gratin, preheat the oven to 400°F. Bring the leek mixture to a boil. Spoon half of the squash into a 6- to 8-cup casserole. Ladle half of the leek mixture over the top and cover with half of the toast and half of the Fontina. Repeat the layers with the remaining squash, leek mixture, toast and Fontina. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top.
Bake the gratin for 30 minutes, or until the top is browned and bubbly. Garnish with the basil and serve.
MAKE AHEAD: The recipe can be prepared through Step Three up to 3 hours ahead. Return to room temperature before baking.
Baked Winter Squash With Italian Sausage Stuffing
- 4 large acorn squash or squash of choice, about 1 pound each, cut in half, seeds removed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1/2 pound Italian sausage ( turkey, pork, chicken or vegetarian), casings removed and diced ( 1/4-inch)
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped,
- 3/4 cup green bell pepper, finely chopped
- 2 plum tomatoes, diced
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 4 cups Italian bread cubes
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1/4 pound shredded Mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried sage
- 1/4 cup egg substitute or 1 egg
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Then lightly season the cut sides of squash with 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper. Place the halved squash in a baking dish, flesh side down, and add 1/2 cup water to the pan. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake until tender, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven and cool completely.
In a large skillet brown the sausage over medium-high heat, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove the sausage from the pan and drain on paper towels. Wipe out the pan with paper towels.
Heat the remaining olive oil in the pan, and add the onion and bell pepper, sauté until soft, about three minutes. Add the garlic, tomato and cook an additional minute. Remove the pan from the heat.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the sausage with the vegetables, bread cubes, chicken stock, the mozzarella cheese, parsley and dried sage. Add the egg and stir well to combine. Season to taste with
salt and pepper, and mix well.
Divide the stuffing mixture between the baked squash halves, and top with the Parmesan cheese. Place the filled squash on a baking sheet and place in the preheated oven. Bake until the
squash are heated through and the cheese melts, about 25 minutes.
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