Food & Drink January 13, 2017
Winter Squash
From decoration to dinner

“Drop it on the ground,” said Callie Rasberry, of Rasberrys Catering & Bistro in Ketchum.

“No, literally. Just…” she mimicked holding a basketball-size Hubbard squash out in front of her. Then she let go, fingers stretched out. Her eyes fell to the floor, where the imaginary squash laid busted in pieces. She looked up and cracked a devilish grin. She was demonstrating how her grandmother, who baked pies with the sweet orange flesh of the gnarly blueish-green squash, manages to pry the thing open.

Winter squashes—pumpkins, butternut, spaghetti squash, acorn, and others—are notoriously hard to cut open, so smashing one on the floor doesn’t seem out of line, but don’t forget to put it in a bag first. It is possible to cut these hearty squashes open with a sturdy chef’s knife, but it takes patience and practice, and isn’t for the faint of heart. Perhaps that’s why winter squashes often rest on the kitchen island as decoration rather than dinner.

With some effort comes sweet rewards for those who decide to tackle hard squashes. There are hundreds of varieties of hard, winter squashes, but most people are only familiar with the ones mentioned above. Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of heirloom seeds, offers 36 varieties of winter squashes, some with unusual names, such as Kikuza, a squat, pumpkin-shaped Japanese squash with large ribbing, and Musquee de Provence, an enormous, wider-than-tall pumpkin with gorgeous mottled green and orange skin.

Winter squashes do have a season (fall through winter), even if some varieties are available year-round. Most hard squashes take 100 days or more to grow from seed to maturity, so Mike Heath of M & M Heath Farms based in Buhl, Idaho, plants near the end of May or beginning of June in order to harvest beginning mid to late September through October. “It’s good to have a little frost kill the leaves,” he said, “because it’s easier to see the squash to harvest.” Heath grows seven or eight varieties, including red kuri and kabocha. Most of his squashes end up at local grocery stores such as Atkinsons’ throughout the Valley through Idaho’s Bounty, a cooperative produce distribution company. The new Natural Grocers in Hailey also stocks a hefty selection of organic squashes, said Erin Dorr, the store manager of Natural Grocers. “Organic produce is what we are known for,” she said.

The beauty of hard squashes is that they keep for months, lasting all the way through the dark, cold winter days if they were cured properly. Properly cured means some of the stem was left on after harvest, and the squash was left to “cure” in a warm, dry place for about 10 days or so, during which time the skin hardens. After that, the squashes are ready to decorate your table or better yet, fill your dinner plate.

Heath’s three favorite varieties are delicata, an elongated, variegated squash with relatively thin skin for a winter squash; kabocha, a squat green squash with deep orange flesh; and spaghetti squash, famous for its bright yellow flesh that easily shreds into pasta-like strands after roasting. He prefers to roast them whole instead of cutting them. “The secret to not cutting your fingers off is to cook them whole,” he laughed. “Stab with a knife to let some air in, but there’s no reason not to cook them whole. You can scrape the seeds out after you roast them.”

Rasberry doesn’t mind the extra work of peeling and cubing squash, especially butternut. “It really depends on what you’re going to do with the squash as to whether you cook them whole or cut into them.” Roasted cubes of butternut can dress up a chicken salad or fill tacos, and grilled slices often accompany the vegetarian fajitas on the Rasberrys menu. When choosing a butternut, Rasberry said, “Look for a small bowl on the bottom and a long thick neck because you are going to get a lot more ‘meat’ out of it that way. I cut it in half where the round bottom and the long neck meet.” If you are making a soup or a puree from the squash, you can roast it whole, but if you want it to remain intact, like cubes or slices, then it needs to be peeled and cut before roasting. “And remember,” she said,” the smaller the pieces, the faster it will cook.”

Delicata is also a favorite squash of Rasberrys because it is so versatile, and it is one of the easier ones to cut. “We’ve made delicata chips in the dehydrator,” she said.” “We’ve also sliced really thin strips from raw delicata, like ribbons, to garnish a salad. And kids love delicata. You can slice into rings and use some cinnamon, brown sugar and butter and roast. You can eat the skin after roasting because it’s soft, too.”

Not only do winter squashes lend themselves to a multitude of cooking preparations—baking, roasting, steaming, grilling—they are nutritional powerhouses: low in calories but high in complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber. Squashes are a rich source of vitamins and minerals, and are high in antioxidants, especially beta carotene. So, don’t let squashes linger on the counter. Crack one open—on the floor or with a knife—and add more color to your dinner.