Move over, zucchini. It’s time to warm up to winter squash.
Early fall brings an orange-fleshed wave of flavorful squashes — including that most popular of Cucurbita cousins, pumpkin.
All squashes grow in warm summer months; the major difference between winter and summer squash varieties (such as zucchini and crookneck) is very thick skin. It helps keep these squashes fresh for months — well into winter. Hence, the name.
And right now is when winter squashes really start rolling into markets. Like many crops this year, the winter squashes and pumpkins are arriving early, thanks to a very mild summer.
“The winter squashes are ahead of schedule,” said Suzanne Ashworth, who grows several varieties for Sacramento-area restaurants at her Del Rio Botanical farm in West Sacramento. “The plants seem to be taking the weird weather in stride and are producing well.”
Pumpkins are running a little early, too. Dixon’s Cool Patch Pumpkins, one of the area’s best-known pumpkin meccas, opened Sept. 15 — six weeks before Halloween. The popular farm, which also features what’s billed as the world’s largest corn maze, will stay open daily through Oct. 31, weather permitting.
“The pumpkins are a teeny bit early, but they’re not all ripe,” said Ann Fogarty of Cool Patch. “There are still some wonderful pumpkins to be had.”
Favored now for their nutritional as well as ornamental value, pumpkins are seeing a surge in popularity on restaurant menus that goes far beyond ties to Halloween jack-o-lanterns or Thanksgiving pies. According to menu trend tracker Datassential, the number of restaurants that feature a pumpkin item on their menus increased by one-third in 2012 over the previous year.
Winter squashes also are seeing a popularity boom. Butternut — that pear-shaped squash that looks a little like a giant tan bowling pin — has nosed aside acorn as the most popular of the non-pumpkin hard-shelled squash. Food companies are introducing butternut-based products such as CedarLean’s butternut squash soup and quinoa wrap combo (available at Safeway) or Lean Cuisine’s butternut squash ravioli.
These companies stress the nutritional wallop that winter squash can offer. Butternut squash, for example, has more Vitamin A than pumpkin and is an excellent source of Vitamin C, say CedarLean’s nutritionists. That’s good news for your skin and your immune system. In addition, butternut is a good source of B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus.
Butternut also is showing up in many unexpected places. Dried butternut flakes can add an extra serving of vegetables into soups, sauces or baked goods; that makes it popular for processed foods aimed at children as well as dieters. It’s also used as a natural food coloring.
While butternut has gone mainstream, other winter squashes are becoming trendy among chefs looking for something a little different.
This season, Del Rio is growing a global cornucopia of winter squashes: Black Futsu, Long Island Cheese, Sweet Meat, Argentina, Lunga de Napoli, Amish Pie, Triamble (also known as Shamrock), Tromboncino Rampicante, Chinese Mini, Tahitian, Australian Butter, Buttercup Queensland Blue, Anna Swartz, Kikuza, Papaya and Marina de Chioggia.
“Right now, I like Papaya squash because of the very smooth flesh,” Ashworth said. “Chinese Mini is my favorite for making a single serving of soup or desert. Amish Pie is my favorite for its thick flesh and it makes a great pumpkin for Halloween. I like Rampicante for a side, as the neck is solid and a 3-inch section is a great side dish.”
Some of these winter squashes grow quite large. Although not the scale-breaking size of Atlantic Giant pumpkins, several squash varieties weigh in at 10 to 20 pounds — or more. That’s a lot of squash for one family.
“Don’t cook the whole squash at once,” Ashworth advised. “Think of it as a kitchen-counter decorator to be sliced and made into many different things. (For example), squash slices fried are excellent.”
Cooked squash pulp also can be frozen for later use, adding color, nutrition and flavor to dishes year round.
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington