This autumn we’ve had an abundance of squash, their large leafy vines spread out over our garden leaving colourful fruits dotted everywhere. And now, all the vegetable stalls at the local markets are overflowing with squash of all shapes, colours and sizes. We have been trying out lots of varieties and putting them into all manner of meals. Everyone knows the large orange pumpkins that get carved for Halloween but it seems a lot of people don’t appreciate the variety and versatility of winter squash in the kitchen. In this post we explore the history and some different ways of cooking squash, as well as nutritional benefits and environmental impacts of growing and eating winter squash.
WHAT ARE WINTER SQUASH?
Winter squash are part of a large family that include cucumbers, melons, gourds and even the bathroom luffah. Winter squash can be distinguished by their hard skin and dense flesh, they are harvested when matured and can be stored for months. Winter squash include pumpkins, butternut and acorn squash to name a few. There are many varieties of winter squash but the names get thoroughly confusing as each variety has a different name all over the world and often even within one country.
Winter squash were domesticated 7000 years ago in Central America where they were first grown exclusively for their seeds as early squash didn’t have much flesh. By the time Christopher Columbus arrived, many varieties of squash were being cultivated all over the Americas. Today, the largest commercial producers of squash include China, Japan, Romania, Turkey, Italy, Egypt, and Argentina.
Winter squash are incredibly versatile and they play a role in cuisines all over the world. You can eat the flowers, the fruit and the seeds. The flesh is firm enough to roast or stew in chunks but once cooked it can easily be pureed to a fine consistency. Their moderate sweetness means they can be used just as well for sweet or savoury dishes. They work wonderfully in moist cakes and comforting stews. Roasted squash goes nicely with toasted nuts like hazel or walnut and the aromatics thyme, sage and fennel. It’s delicious with spices like cumin and coriander as in North African and Middle Eastern dishes and of course with cinnamon, nutmeg and all spice in the classic American pumpkin pie. Or the flavours can work well with coconut and lime for a tropical twist. Because of their tough outer skins and natural hollow interior, pumpkins are fantastic for stuffing, you can even hollow them out and serve a warm soup inside.
The seeds of all pumpkins can be eaten, you just need to separate them from the flesh, rinse them and lightly roast them with a little oil and salt. Store bought pumpkin seeds are from a certain variety that are grown exclusively for their seeds. Because the seeds of this variety develop no outer husk they are are a lot softer and easier to eat.
THE GOLDEN BENEFITS
Winter squash is low in calories and contains large amounts of natural sugars, carbohydrates and vitamin A from Carotene. It is good for circulation and regulating blood sugar levels.
By far the most nutritious part of the squash is the seeds, which are an amazing source of zinc and omega fatty acids. The seeds are also very beneficial in removing intestinal worms. Pumpkin seed oil, which is often sold in pill form at health stores, is said to be good for reducing cholesterol, it’s anti-inflammatory, good for prostate health, urinary and even menopause. We often make our own pumpkin seed butter by simply toasting the seeds and then blending them, you then get all the benefits of the oils in a delicious spread.
The juice of squash is also proven to relieve burns. Adding sweet vegetable like pumpkin and squash to highly mucus- forming foods like milk, yoghurt, kefir, sour cream and other diary also greatly improve digestion.
Winter squash are fantastic vegetables for people that want to eat local produce through the winter months. We had a quick catch up with Joris at Sutton Community Farm, which is a community-owned farm on the outskirts of London providing fresh, local produce and a space to learn skills. Currently at the farm they grow a large selection of winter squash which get included in their vegetable box scheme and sold to local restaurants. For the farmer they are a fantastic crop that is easy to grow with a great yield per square metre. One of the best things about squash is the fact that they keep so well. Some varieties, if stored correctly, will keep up for up to six months. They are best kept in a dry environment, around 15º to 20ºC and away from light. A cupboard in a cool room in the house should work well. The flesh of pumpkins and squash will become sweeter overtime as the starch turns into sugar.
All of this makes winter squash a very environmentally friendly vegetable. However there is a one big environmental issue: the Halloween pumpkins. At Halloween last year 18,000 tons of pumpkin were sent to landfill in the UK alone just three days after Halloween. The pumpkins that are grown for carving at Halloween are grown explicitly for size and, although perfectly edible, not great to eat. The main problem is the way they are disposed because most people don’t compost anymore and very few local councils offer a composting service. Perhaps it’s time someone set up a pumpkin recycling scheme like they do for Christmas trees to turn that 18,000 tons into useful compost rather than landfill.
So although Halloween and Thanksgiving have been, it is still very much the season to be enjoying all the qualities and varieties of winter squash. It is such a diverse vegetable and there are literally thousands of recipes from all over the world that you can create with squash.
Pumpkin and Coconut Tart
This is a recipe Muriel learnt while working at Infinity Foods Cafe in Brighton, it was one of the dishes that was always guaranteed to sell out straight away and has since become a favourite in our household too. Even Arlo, who hates squash, loves these luxurious treats. In this version we have used Delicata and Acorn squash, because they are both very sweet with a lovely silky texture. please note that creamed coconut is not the same as the coconut cream you get in the tins, also if you can get hold of fresh coconut we recommend using that instead, you also get the desiccated coconut in the process. For a quick guide to make your own coconut cream have a look here.
Makes 6 small tarts (if you wish to make one big tart you will need to double all quantities)
1Kg Winter Squash
200g Creamed Coconut
Zest and Juice of one lemon
2 tblsp Maple Syrup (optional)
200g Rolled porridge oats
100g Melted coconut oil
2 tblsp Maple Syrup
Plus 50g of desiccated coconut
Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Half the squash lengthways, deseed and place face down on a lightly oiled baking tray. Roast the squash for approximately 40 minutes until really tender, the cooking time will depend somewhat on which squash you use. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little. Meanwhile make the base, combine the oats, coconut oil and maple syrup in a bowl. Divide the mixture between 6 small tart cases and gently press down with the back of a spoon. NB if it feels too crumbly and you would like a smoother base then give the oats a quick whizz in a blender before putting it in to line the cases. Back the bases for 15 minutes in the oven until they have just started turning a nice brown. Remove and allow to cool.
Lay out the desiccated coconut on a baking tray and toast in the oven for a few minutes until it starts to turn brown, keep an eye on this as it will turn from lovely and toasted to black and horrible in a matter of seconds.
Now back to the filling; scoop out the flesh from the squash into a food processor, add the creamed coconut, lemon zest and juice then blend well. Taste the mixture at this point to see if you think it needs maple syrup, different squash have different sugar contents and also peoples tastes are different so use your own judgement here. Divide the mixture between the tart bases and spread it out evenly. Now sprinkle the desiccated coconut over the top and then place the tarts in the fridge for at least 3 hours to set.
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