At harvest time, the season of Thanksgiving and Halloween, one of the mainstays in our kitchen is squash, of which the popular pumpkin is just one variety. Native to North America, pumpkin and many other varieties of squash were introduced to European settlers by the aboriginal peoples of the Americas. “If it were not for pumpkins, we’d be undone soon,” said an early North American colonist in his 1693 diary, highlighting the importance of these native squash to early settlers. Catherine Parr Traill also describes planting squash near her homestead, close to what is now Lakefield, Ontario, in the mid-1800s.

The numerous varieties of squash can be divided into two main categories: summer squash, which has a soft skin and includes zucchini and crookneck, patty pan, and yellow squash; and winter squash, which has a harder rind and includes acorn, buttercup, butternut, hubbard, pumpkin, sweet dumpling, and spaghetti squash.

Both types of squash have a high nutritional value, providing us with carotenoids (an antioxidant) and vitamin C, as well as potassium, niacin, calcium, iron, and fibre. Winter squash and other deep orange vegetables are especially high in beta-carotene, the source of vitamin A.

Cooking with Squash

Squash and pumpkin are among my favourite vegetables to cook with. Beyond all their nutritional goodness, they seem to contain the golden warmth of the sun in their beautiful green and autumnal orange shades, and all the sweetness of the earth in their bountiful pulp. They are a flavour sensation no matter how simply or extravagantly one prepares them, and their versatility is a bonus.

Many of the winter squashes can be used interchangeably, although each has its own particular strengths. Squash is a tasty addition to a stir-fry, soup, stew, or as a side dish baked or sautéed in a little butter or olive oil, its sweetness offsetting some of the other autumn vegetables. Because of this sweetness, squash can be used in both savoury and dessert dishes such as the classic pumpkin pie. Other desserts include butternut pie, zucchini bread, and pumpkin loaf.

I recommend using organic squash in your recipes. Squash can be stored in a cool, dry place such as a garage or porch for up to six months. Ideal temperature is 5 to 10 Celsius.

Baked squash

Cut squash in half, and scoop out seeds and stringy bits. Brush the surface of the flesh with melted butter or olive oil, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Arrange cut side down in a baking dish and add water to a depth of about a quarter inch. Bake in a preheated oven at 375*F for 30 to 60 minutes depending on the size of the squash.

Variation: after 20 to 30 minutes, stand the squash upright and brush with more melted butter or olive oil, salt, and pepper. Brush with maple syrup and nutmeg and continue cooking.

Baked spaghetti squash

Bake squash as described above. When cooked (make sure it is tender and soft), scoop the flesh out of the skin and mix it together with a little extra butter, freshly grated cheese (parmesan, swiss, or cheddar), minced parsley, basil, coriander, or dill for garnish, and salt and pepper to taste. For those who do not eat cheese, it is just as tasty without it.

Stuffed squash

Bake squash as described above. Scoop the flesh out and saute it in a bit of butter and add diced vegetables such as onion, carrots, beans, peas, or broccoli. You can also add cubed apples or raisings, breadcrumbs, or grated cheese or quark if you like. Then fill the skin with the prepared squash mixture.

Variation: pre-cook a grain such as rice, quinoa, or couscous, and when the vegetables are cooked, add the grain to the veggie mixture in a little butter (which adds a nice flavour to the grain). Fill the squash. You can also bake it again to brown the top.

Squash and carrot soup

1 large onion
3­–5 medium to large carrots
1 medium-sized squash
2–3 cups water or soup stock
thyme, basil, marjoram, salt and pepper to taste
garlic (optional)
apple (optional)

Sauté onion in butter or olive oil. Peel and chop squash into large cubes. Cut carrots into large pieces and sauté for 5 to 10 minutes. Add enough water or stock to just barely cover the vegetables (don’t put in too much liquid or the soup will be runny instead of thick). Add peeled and cored apple or peeled and mashed garlic if using. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until tender. Transfer to a blender and puree until smooth. Serve with a garnish of fresh herbs.

Submitted by Karen Fliess

First published in The Chronicle (Fall 2003)