Plant Science at the dinner table: winter squash

Winter squash is tasty and good for you, too.

A pile of multiple types of squash.
Bountiful harvest of winter squash from https://www.dreamstime.com/photos-images/winter-squash.html

It’s fall in Michigan! The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler, the air a bit crisper and the trees are becoming a palate of red, orange and yellow, or may have fallen already. With these changes, we begin thinking about the fall harvest. You may enjoy a sunny afternoon harvesting the last fall vegetables from the garden, picking apples, or visiting your local farmer’s market one last time. Whatever you are doing, now is the time to stock up on winter squash. Squash is a very underrated vegetable. It is packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals; it’s tasty and versatile.

In this Michigan State University Extension article series “plant science at the dinner table” learn more about winter squash and the foods we eat. Learning how they grow and where they come from while teaching children a little plant science, can make for a great activity for young and old.

Most home gardeners separate squash into two very distinct categories: summer squash and winter squash. Summer squash, Cucurbita pepo, is generally grown in about 50 days, has a skin or rind that can be eaten and is usually eaten when it is immature. Summer squash does not have a very good shelf life, lasting only for a couple of weeks after being picked. Some examples of summer squash are zucchini, yellow crookneck, pattypan and zephyr squash.

Winter squash, on the other hand, usually takes about 100 days from seed to harvest. Winter squash, Curcubita maxima and Curcubita moschataha, have a hard rind and need to be peeled (it is very hard), resulting in very dense fruit. Once picked from the vine, it can last several months. Fall is time for winter squash to take center stage, focusing on butternut, acorn, hubbard and other winter squashes.

Here are a few facts about winter squash:

  • Squash is a very old food plant, dating back to at least 8,000 B.C.
  • Squash was originally grown in Central Mexico, Peru and the Eastern U.S.
  • Squash are in the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and gourds.
  • Almost every part of the squash plant is edible, including the leaves, tendril shoots, stems, flowers, seeds, and fruit.
  • Squash has also been grown to be used as containers (dried gourds).
  • Squash comes from the Narragansett Indian word “askutasquash,” translated roughly to “eaten raw or uncooked.”
  • Squash is a good source of minerals, carotenes, and vitamin A, with moderate quantities of vitamins B and C.
  • Winter squash provides the greatest percentage of certain carotenoids.
  • Winter squash has shown potential in cancer prevention.
  • China and India grow the most squash.
  • U.S. is the biggest importer of squash.

Squash can be roasted, baked, sautéed, boiled, microwaved, and made into a variety of tasty soups and casseroles. The choices are almost endless. There are recipes that are simple and recipes that require interesting spices and are quite complex. I prefer to roast my squash with a bit of garlic and butter. I have experienced toppings from the traditional marshmallows to crushed candy canes. I must admit, I’m not fond of the marshmallow topped squash, but the squash topped with crushed candy canes is quite tasty.

Stock up on winter squash and try a new recipe or two. I am sure it will be good and know it will be good for you.

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