Autumn officially arrived last Saturday at 9:54 PM. For me, that means goodbye zucchini, hello Hubbard. I’m talking winter squash, those uniquely shaped and textured cucurbits that have already begun to appear at Central Farm Markets.
In my youth, winter squash were merely decorations that sat on the front porch stacked around corn stalks, the big orange pumpkins carved with triangle eyes and a toothy grins lit with a votive candle. This tradition continues today with house-proud holiday decorators going out of their way to procure the largest variety of what look more like alien pods.
Humans have been growing and breeding squash for over 8,000 years. “You have a huge demand for squash and gourds that are aesthetically interesting and different from each other. That’s been popular for a while, and it’s been really trendy the last few years,” explained Adam Pyle, a horticulturist at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. in an interview with NPR.
Eating winter squash other than in dessert was a foreign concept to me. Grandma’s ingredients for pie came out of a can. It wasn’t until one of the vendors at my local farmers market when I was in college was handing out slivers of brilliant orange flesh cut our of what looked like a fifty-pound green-skinned hollow cucumber. Hesitantly, I took a piece and was instantly converted by the sweet, firm fruit (yes, squash are fruit). Each week I would purchase a large chunk as it was inexpensive, perfect for a student budget. I learned to cook winter squash every imaginable way—baked, sautéed, grilled, pureed in soups, raw in salads. Wanting to grow it for myself, I asked the farmer if I could have some of his seeds as my purchases never contained any.
“No way, this is my squash. It took me over ten years to come up with this,” he replied. Miffed by his rebuff, I never bought his squash again and instead, sought out other unusual varieties, though none ever came close to the flavor and size of his.
After I had begun farming, a neighbor asked if I’d haul away her fall decorations to feed to my animals. She had a full pick-up load of every imaginable color, shape and size of squash, gourd and pumpkin. There was even a giant pumpkin which required the use of a wooden pallet and forklift to load on the truck. While most of the bounty went to the livestock, some I took slices from several to see how they would cook up and taste. The bluish-green Hubbard was my favorite out of all. Some had warty skins so thick I had to use an ax to cut into them!
The best part, though, was watching as the animals rolled them down the hill running in hopes of getting a bite one they broke open. The old red mare became the barnyard hero after she discovered if she stomped on the squash the succulent flesh was exposed. The pigs crawled inside the giant pumpkin through a hole they chewed open, eating it from the inside out. Everyone ate themselves silly and the following year squash grew throughout the pastures, many making it to maturity before the residents broke into them.
Winter squash, especially Hubbards, have become a staple of my fall and winter meals. Their size, versatility in preparation along with their storage capacity—up to a year in a cool, dry place—means there are always one or two along with other interesting varieties such as butternut (aka: neck pumpkins), Cinderella and Spaghetti squashes.
One of my favorite ways to prepare squash is to cube up the flesh and place in a container along with other sliced/cubed fall vegetables such as beets, carrots, and parsnips, add olive oil, crushed garlic, rosemary and fresh cracked pepper. Shake until the vegetables are thoroughly coated in oil and then spread on a baking sheet and place in a 375-degree oven until the roasted soft and caramelized. Got leftovers? Put in a blender along with a few cups of broth for instant soup. Add a little curry powder and a dollop of Greek yogurt for an international flair.
And yes, just about all varieties of winter squashes can be used to make pie.
Here are some tips for choosing and storing winter squash.
- Winter squash are prone to decay. Examine the entire squash for any soft spots or signs of mold if you plan to store them for any length of time.
- Choose squash that are heavy for their size and have dull rinds. The rinds should be firm. The heavier they are, the moister and tastier they are.
- Winter squashes can be stored in a dark, cool, well-ventilated space for six months. Varieties with very thick, warty rinds will last for a year.
- Cut squash can be wrapped and refrigerated for several days.