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  • Winter squash 101

    Nutrition: Calories vary variety, but all winter squashes and pumpkins are relatively low in calories and extremely high in beta-carotene. (That’s why many varieties have that great orange-colored flesh.) These close cousins also are high in fiber and dense with other nutrients. In general, the darker the squash, the more vitamins. One cup mashed acorn or butternut squash has 82 calories, but three times the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A. It’s also high in Vitamin C and cancer-fighting phytonutrients. One cup of cooked pumpkin cubes has about 35 calories with similar nutritional benefits. Winter squash and pumpkin are among the easiest vegetables to digest; that’s why they make a popular choice for baby food.

    Storage: Under ideal conditions, whole winter squashes and pumpkins can last weeks, sometime months. Keep winter squashes and pumpkins in a cool, dry place — but not the refrigerator. Winter squashes retain their sugar (and sweet taste) longer when stored at room temperature. Chilling actually degrades the squash. Research at UC Davis and Oregon State University showed that most winter squash preferred storage at 50 to 59 degrees, with moderate humidity and good ventilation. Any colder and they went bad quickly. Squash stored with a little bit of stem tend to last longer. Avoid exposure to hot air (such as near furnace or stove vents); that will cause the squash or pumpkin to dry out.

    Once it’s cut, wrap and store squash or pumpkin in the refrigerator; use within four days.

    Selection: Look for squashes or pumpkins that feel heavy for their size with (for most varieties) smooth, dull skin and absolutely no soft spots. By comparison, lightweight squash may have lost some moisture and the flesh will be drier. For most varieties of winter squash, shiny skin indicates it was picked before fully mature or may have been coated with wax for shipping.

    Preparation: Winter squashes and pumpkins can be baked, steamed or boiled. Thin slices of winter squash also can be deep-fried in tempura batter.

    The easiest way to cook any winter squash or pumpkin? Roast it. After washing, cut the squash in half or large chunks or slices. (Peeling optional.) Remove seeds. Place squash in a baking dish. Brush with olive oil or melted butter if desired. Then, roast in a preheated, 350-degree oven until soft (about 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces). The roasted squash can be served straight from the oven. Or remove the peel and mash the flesh. Or purée the cooked squash and pumpkin in the food processor with the peel. Cooked pulp can be frozen for later use or added to recipes.

    Acorn squash — or others with bowlshapes — are great candidates for baking too.

    Microwave it: This method works great with acorn squash as well as such varieties as Carnival and Sweet Dumpling. Cut squash in half; scoop out seeds. Place squash cut-side down on a microwave-safe pie plate. Cover with waxed paper or plastic wrap. Microwave on high for 6 to 8 minutes (depending on size of squash). Turn the squash over and test for doneness with a fork. If desired, add a little butter and brown sugar to the center; cover. Microwave on high for 2 more minutes.

    — Debbie Arrington

  • Pumpkin shrimp curry Serves 4 This yummy shrimp dish from Tory Miller, of L’Etoile restaurant in Madison, Wis. , is best served in a bowl over rice (try basmati). Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. INGREDIENTS 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 cup sliced onion 1 tablespoon minced ginger 1 tablespoon minced garlic 1 chopped plum tomato One15-ounce can pumpkin purée or 2 cups fresh pumpkin, steamed or roasted, then puréed 2 cups vegetable broth 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk 11/2 teaspoons curry powder 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 cup diced, roasted butternut squash (pre-cut squash saves time) 1 pound peeled, deveined shrimp 11/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice Cilantro, lime zest and fried shallots for garnish INSTRUCTIONS

    Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and ginger, sauté until soft, about 8 minutes. Add garlic, cook for a minute.

    Stir in tomato and pumpkin; cook, stirring frequently until pumpkin is golden brown, about 10 minutes.

    Add broth, coconut milk, curry powder and cayenne pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes.

    Add squash, shrimp and lime juice. Simmer until shrimp are cooked and squash is warm.

    Serve with steamed rice. Top with cilantro, lime zest and shallots.

  • Butternut squash and caramelized onion pizza Prep time: 20 minutes Cook time: 1 hour 20 minutes, including time to caramelize the onions Serves 4 If you’re not a pizza purist, a store-bought, pre-baked crust not only saves time, but is also sturdy enough to hold a mountain of produce, making for a hearty vegetarian dinner such as this cool-weather combination of squash, blue cheese, walnuts and caramelized onions. The optional finishing touch: a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil. If you don’t have time to truly caramelize the onions, here’s a shortcut: Cook them over medium heat until they get as tender as possible without burning, then drizzle with a little honey. They won’t shrink as much as when they truly caramelize, so you might not need all of them for this recipe. Make ahead: The onions take about an hour to caramelize. They can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks. The squash can be roasted up to 1 week in advance; refrigerate until ready to use. INGREDIENTS 2 large yellow onions (1 3/4 pounds total), thinly sliced 1/2 teaspoon sea salt 1 small butternut squash (1 pound), stemmed, peeled and halved lengthwise 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 pre-baked whole wheat pizza crust, such as Boboli 2 ounces Gorgonzola dolce or other blue cheese, cut or pinched into small pieces 1/2 cup raw, unsalted walnut halves, broken into large pieces 1/2 cup lightly packed baby arugula leaves 2 teaspoons pumpkin seed oil (see note; may substitute walnut oil or olive oil) INSTRUCTIONS

    Set a baking stone, if using, on a rack in the oven; preheat to 450 degrees. (Alternatively, the pizza can be placed directly on the oven rack.) Have a large rimmed baking sheet at hand.

    Heat a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, tossing with tongs or a spatula, until they wilt and start to brown. Sprinkle with half of the salt, toss and reduce the heat to very low. Cook, stirring very occasionally, until the onions are deeply golden brown, very soft and sweet, up to an hour or more. (If they start to dry out during the cooking, stir in a few tablespoons of water at a time to keep them moist.) Let cool.

    Meanwhile, scoop out and discard the seeds from the squash, then cut each squash half into 1/4-inch slices. Transfer to the baking sheet, drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with the remaining salt and toss to coat. Roast the squash slices until fork-tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool. If you are making the pizza right away, reduce the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

    To assemble the pizza, spread the caramelized onions evenly over the crust. Arrange the butternut squash slices on top. Dot with the blue cheese and walnuts.

    Slide the pizza onto the baking stone (or place on the oven rack). Bake until the pizza’s edges are browned, the bottom is crisp and the cheese is melted, about 20 minutes.

    Immediately scatter the arugula leaves on top, then drizzle the pizza with pumpkin seed oil. Cut the pizza into 8 slices; serve warm.

    Per serving: 480 calories; 23 g fat (5g sat.); 10 mg chol.; 550 mg sodium; 62 g carb.; 9 g fiber; 11 g sugar; 13 g protein.
  • Arugula and roasted squash salad with pears Prep time: 25 minutes Cook time: 40 minutes Serves 6 Roasted pears and butternut squash bring their sweet, deep flavors to the bitter arugula. The dressing uses some of the roasted pear as well, helping to keep this salad light. Serve as a side dish or as an appetizer; dress it up with chopped, toasted pecans or walnuts. To make it a more substantial main course, add roasted chicken, turkey or duck. Recipe from Stephanie Witt Sedgwick for The Washington Post. INGREDIENTS 1 pound butternut squash, cut into 3/4-inch cubes 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 medium (about 9 ounces each) ripe Bartlett pears, peeled, cut in half and cored Salt 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar 2 or 3 teaspoons honey Freshly ground black pepper 5 ounces baby arugula INSTRUCTIONS

    Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with nonstick cooking oil spray.

    Toss the butternut squash cubes with 1 tablespoon of the oil: transfer to one side of the lined baking sheet. Place the pear halves, cut sides down, on the other side. Sprinkle the pears and squash lightly with salt.

    Roast for 35 to 40 minutes or until tender, stirring the squash pieces every 10 to 15 minutes. Turn the pears over after 25 minutes. When the pears and squash are tender, remove them from the oven; they might not be ready at the same time.

    Transfer one of the roasted pear halves to a blender along with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, the vinegar, 2 teaspoons of the honey and salt and pepper to taste; purée until smooth. Taste, and add the remaining teaspoon of honey as needed, along with any seasoning adjustment.

    Divide the arugula among individual salad plates. Top each portion with equal amounts of the roasted squash and pears. Drizzle about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the dressing over each salad.

    Top each salad with a grind or two of black pepper, if desired, and serve.

    Per serving: 140 calories; 7 g fat (1 g sat.); 60 mg sodium; 20 g carb.; 4 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 2 g protein
  • Creamy butternut squash soup with ginger Prep time: 20 minutes Cook time: 45 minutes Recipe from the Los Angeles Times. INGREDIENTS One 2 1/2-pound butternut squash 2 tablespoons butter 1 onion, chopped (about 1 cup) 3 cloves garlic, sliced 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger root 6 cups water 2 teaspoons salt, more to taste Apple cider vinegar Crème fraîche or sour cream Toasted slivered almonds INSTRUCTIONS

    Peel the squash, using a sharp vegetable peeler. Cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Cut in 1-inch chunks.

    Heat the butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger root, and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the diced squash, water and salt and bring to a simmer. Cook at a low simmer until the squash is tender enough to smash with a spoon, about 30 minutes.

    Purée the soup, either using an immersion blender or grinding it in several stages in a regular blender. The soup should be completely smooth and a little thicker than heavy cream. Ladle the soup through a strainer into a clean soup pot, discarding any bits of squash or ginger left behind.

    Heat the soup through once more and season to taste, adding salt first and then the vinegar. Add the vinegar 1/2 teaspoon at a time; it will take a little more than 1 tablespoon.

    To serve, stir the crème fraîche to loosen the texture. Ladle the soup into wide bowls and spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons of crème fraîche in a decorative pattern onto each. Scatter a few toasted slivered almonds over the soup and serve immediately.

    Each serving: 163 calories; 3 g protein; 22 g carbohydrates; 4 g fiber; 9 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 20 mg cholesterol; 795 mg sodium.

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In Season: Winter squashes and pumpkins — ripe, ready and rising in popularity

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am

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

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