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Winter Squash

Summer squashes (green and yellow) have a soft skin that's edible, and they are meant to be harvested when the seeds and entire interiors are soft enough to eat, as well. Winter squash is different in that the seeds are mature and hard, and the skin is a rindtough and hard, and not meant to be consumed. Remove the skin and seeds, and what's left is flesh that is a culinary treasure. The hard outer skin on winter squash is what protects it and allows it to be stored over 3-6 months, through the winter and into the spring.

Squash is a vegetable that mostly grows on sturdy vines, but some can also be semi-vining or bushy plants. The most common types of winter squash are acorn, butternut and spaghettithe one with the interior that becomes stringy like long noodles when it's cooked. There are numerous specialized varieties, as well. Each has a unique flavor, and ranging from slightly sweet to peanuty. Some common seasonings used with cooked squash are butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, and ginger.

The difference between winter squash and pumpkins is mostly nomenclature. Some people interchange the terms. And, some cooks interchange them in pies, with squash doing a superb job without being detected as a faux pumpkin. Winter squash can have skin that is smooth or bumpy, thin or thick, and in colors ranging from light yellow to blue-grey to dark green to vibrant orange. They also vary greatly in size and shape. All contain flesh that is light yellow to deep, rich orange.

Plant winter squash in the spring. It will mature over the summer and be ready for an autumn harvest, before the first frost. Most winter squashes will store wonderfully over several months in a cool cellar throughout the winter. Some varieties benefit from an initial curing stage immediately after harvest, kept at around 70 degrees for 10 to 20 days, then moved to a cool, dry place, with 45- to 60-degree temps.

For the health-conscious, squash ranks high on the charts of nutrition-dense foods. It is high in fiber, and also contains potassium, niacin, iron and beta carotene, which converts to Vitamin A in the body.

Winter squash will be the sweetest and mildest when prepared with the seeds scraped out before cooking. The skin can be removed either before or after cooking. The flesh can be boiled, broiled, baked, or steamed. Then, it can be cubed, mashed, pureed, or in the case of spaghetti squash, used in place of pasta, for a healthier, lower calorie and more flavorful base for marinara sauce.

Squash seeds can be roasted with a little salt or tamari (soy) sauce and eaten as a healthy snack. Butternut squash soup is simple to prepare, with most recipes calling for few ingredients, and it's popular with meat and potatoes gangs as well as uber-gourmets. Cooked squash freezes well, whether alone or in prepared dishes and soups.

Most vining squash plants will require a lot of room, so plan your garden space accordingly, and try a few varieties, to keep a range of flavors to enjoy over the winter months.

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