Thursday, December 23, 2010

Winter Squash, A Healthy Choice for Cold Weather

Late in the summer and early in the fall my favorite fruit of all begin to ripen on the vine. In my early 20’s, I was a member of a CSA farm in my home town, and it was there that I acquired my love for this beautiful plant. I loved walking in the fields and seeing these last holdouts, when all the glory of the summer months had been cut down, the sun threw longer shadows, and the wind began to bring a bite. As one of the foods that inevitably begs the question, ‘Is it a fruit or a vegetable?’* winter squash is one of my favorites because it seems the perfect food for winter.

First of all, winter squash keeps well when put in a root cellar. While this is no longer a concern for us in the age of refrigeration, for our ancestors this was a blessing, as it meant they would have full bellies until spring. Even for us, winter squash is the gift that keeps on giving, as it will stay fresh in a refrigerator for months, thus providing last summer’s bounty deep into the new year.

Secondly, squash is hearty. Heavy and dense, rich in fiber, a good winter squash pairs well with dairy and can easily find its way into soups or savory pies. Again, though this was more necessary in ages past, when you needed rich foods to survive a harsh, snowy winter, it can keep us modern folk warm and satisfied throughout the winter. There’s truly nothing like a bowl of hot butternut squash soup when you come inside from the biting cold.

Finally, winter squash is rich in beta-carotene, a plant compound that your body turns into vitamin A. I think that this is one of the truly brilliant features of squash. Traditionally, winter is a time to store fat, and vitamin A is a fat-soluble nutrient, which helps to protect those fats from oxidation, as well as being on hand for other uses. Additionally, as beta carotene is water-soluble, your body simply gets rid what it does not need.

To further interest and inform, let me mention that winter squash comes in a stunning variety of shapes and sizes. Butternut squash is the best known, of course. The little green Acorn squash is a New England favorite and roast or stuff well, as does the striped Delicata squash. People often think of Pumpkin for nothing except pie and jackolanterns, but the humble orange fruit makes an excellent soup. Finally, the Hubbard squash is for me an example of the prototypical squash; large, hearty, bumpy and rough, tough when raw but tender when cooked, the Hubbard squash is a beautiful example of nature’s bounty. Keep your eye out for others as well as you feast your way through the winter.

(*There are seeds inside, so therefore it’s a fruit.)