Butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, and pumpkins rarely have a pristine appearance. But as they cook, they become sweet and rich on the palate, while holding a gorgeous autumn hue.
Credit: Photo: Oxmoor House

SEASON: Summer and fall are harvest times for winter squash, but they store so well that they’re available almost year-round.

CHOOSING: Winter squash should have a hard rind and feel heavy. The stem and rind should be undamaged.

STORING: The ideal storage place would be one that is not as cold as a refrigerator, but not as warm as a heated house. A cool pantry or cabinet or an unheated garage or basement that stays in the 50s is ideal.

GROWING: Although you grow them at the same time as summer squash, winter squash is named because of its harder skin that makes it capable of long winter storage. The vigorous vines do best planted in full sun on hills—small mounds in the garden where a hole has been dug and then backfilled with a mixture of compost and the existing soil. Space the hills about 8 feet apart; the vines need room to ramble.

After all danger of frost has passed in spring, push about five seeds into each hill, water well, and after a week or two, thin the seedlings to two plants. Since the vines will cover a lot of ground, cover the bed with mulch to keep down weeds while protecting the developing fruits from rot. It takes about 80 to 100 days for them to be ready for harvest. You’ll know they’re ready when the rind is so hard that you can’t puncture it with your thumbnail. Depending on the length of your growing season, you may want to eat the first batch of squash and plant a second round for storing over the winter.

HISTORY: When the colonists arrived in North America, they were introduced to a vegetable they'd neither seen nor tasted before―squash. Native Americans, however, had been eating it for many centuries. The English name of this tasty member of the gourd family comes from the Narragansett word askutasquash.

APPEARANCE: From acorn to turban, winter squashes vary wildly in size, color, and shape. Most have a sweet, mellow flavor, but there are differences here as well.

EATING: With the exception of spaghetti squash, virtually any winter squash (including pumpkin) can be substituted for another in any recipe, from main dish to side dish to dessert. The first order of business, though, is how to cut the squash. With a hefty knife or cleaver, hack off the stem, then smash the knife or cleaver lengthwise into the rind. If necessary, use a rubber mallet or rolling pin to gently hammer right where the blade meets the handle, until the squash splits. If you're still having trouble, pierce the skin in a couple of places, microwave the squash on HIGH for a minute or two, and let it stand for several minutes; then, try cutting it again. Once you've split the squash, use a large spoon to clean the seeds and membrane out of the cavity. It's now ready to be boiled, baked, roasted, simmered, steamed, microwaved, or sauteed. If you're baking or microwaving a whole squash, be sure to pierce the rind in several places with a fork so it won't explode. (If you need to peel the squash, do so after cooking.) One pound of winter squash will provide about two cups of cooked pieces.

BENEFITS: Generally, most varieties are rich in vitamins C and A (in the form of beta-carotene), two antioxidants that help prevent cancer, heart disease, and some eye problems. That's why color is important--the darker the squash, the more beta-carotene and other nutrients it contains. Winter squash is also a good source of iron and riboflavin. –Su Reid