Hard Winter Squash

December 23, 2009 0 Comments

A cherished part of our longstanding traditions, hard squash make their appearance on our tables as early as October and linger in our ovens well into January or early February.  We celebrate their quirky shapes, unusual sizes and striped markings in front door displays and Thanksgiving centerpieces. They are versatile and readily available, and at Specialty Produce we offer over twenty varieties of winter squash—many from local farms and growers.
All members of the cucurbita family, hard squash grow on ground creeping vines. Winter squash differ from summer in that they have a hard, inedible rind and a hollow inner cavity filled with large, tough seeds (some are inedible, some can be roasted and eaten). They are excellent keepers, especially when stored in cool, dry locations between 50 and 60 degrees F.  Larger squash, such as hubbard, banana or fairytale pumpkins, are often marketed in cut sections and sold by weight. Hard varieties store well and some, such as Tahitian, can even ‘heal’ themselves after being cut by creating a skin and sealing in moisture– ideal for such a large variety, enabling extended shelf life.
Winter squash are best harvested after the end of October.  Too often growers pick large gourds early to meet the holiday demands, yet a good squash will be left on the vine until it is ripe and the sugars are allowed to fully develop.  Most squash, such as spaghetti and delicata are ripe when their color changes from green to yellow, and when they snap easily off their vines.  A ripe squash will also have an almost dull look to its skin; if the rind is shiny it is still too young. When selecting winter squash, the rind should be firm with no soft spots, signs of decay or visible cracks or cuts. If the squash you’re purchasing has a stem, it was almost certainly locally grown. Here in San Diego, farmers experience a fairly long growing season– already into mid-December they’re still harvesting spaghetti squash.  Squash grown around the county are sold locally and therefore picked exactly when they are ripe and do not need to be cured.
Squash, especially hard winter squash can be cooked in a wide variety of ways– pureed, steamed, roasted, or baked. They are a wonderful accompanied by creams, cheeses, ground meats and other hearty vegetables and are well complimented by fresh herbs and spices.  Many varieties are even interchangeable in recipes:

Hubbard Squash
Hubbard Squash

Hubbard, pumpkin and turban are all mild, sweet squash with moist, thick, flesh.  These big beauties are perfect for baking and scooping out the insides for soups and pie fillings.

Kabocha Squash
Kabocha Squash

Kabocha and butternut are great peeled, cubed and roasted. This brings out their natural sweetness and firm, creamy consistency. Pureed and baked into cakes and breads is also a tasty alternative.

Delicata Squash
Delicata Squash

Delicata, dumpling and acorn squash are smaller but no less flavorful; their shape and size make them excellent for halving and baking, stuffed with grains, pastas or ground meats.
Richard Brown of Giuseppe Restaurants and Fine Catering loves to prepare hard winter squash. He cuts them in half, removes the seeds and pulp and brushes the cut side with a little butter. Then he roasts them, skin side up, until soft and adds the flesh to sauteed vidalia onions and a yukon on sweet potato. Seasoned with fresh thyme, salt and pepper, he serves it pureed as a shooter with creme fraiche and a cheese straw! The best part about his dish? You can use any hard winter squash and each one will create a different flavor combination.
Whether you eat them or carve them or just enjoy their beautiful colors, hard winter squash are a fitting way to embrace the season and celebrate local produce.
From the Specialty Produce Archives:

Variety Pounds Sold in Season, 2009 (Aug-Dec)
Butternut Squash 28970.2
Kabocha Squash 3874
Spaghetti Squash 2366
Green Acorn Squash 3004.75
Pounds Sold in Season,   2008 (Aug-Dec)
Butternut Squash 29390.2
Kabocha Squash 3542.8
Green Acorn Squash 3039.05
Spaghetti Squash 3170.3
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