Pumpkin, Squash Perfect for Fall Menus
Pumpkins and winter squash are members of the cucurbita family, the family of flowering plants that contains about 700 species of food and ornamental plants, which includes gourds, melons, and cucumbers. Evidence of squash being eaten in Mexico dates as far back as 5500 B.C., and there is evidence of squash being eaten in South America more than 2,000 years ago.
When the colonists landed in North America, the Native Americans brought pumpkins to them as gifts, and subsequently taught them a variety of ways to use it. It is believed that early American settlers made pumpkin pie by filling a hollowed out pumpkin shell with milk, honey and spices, then baking it in hot ashes. Next thing you know – voila, Thanksgiving tradition pumpkin pie.
Large, round and orange, the pumpkin is a member of the gourd family, which also includes muskmelon, watermelon and squash. Its orange flesh has a mild, sweet flavor and the seeds — husked and roasted — are delicately nutty. Pumpkin seeds are commonly known as pepitas. Fresh pumpkins are available in the fall and winter and some specimens have weighed in at well over 100 pounds. In general, however, the flesh from smaller sizes will be more tender and succulent. Choose pumpkins that are free from blemishes and heavy for their size. Store whole pumpkins at room temperature up to a month or refrigerate up to 3 months. Pureed pumpkin is also available canned. Pumpkin may be prepared in almost any way suitable for winter squash. It’s a good source of vitamin A.
The fruit of various members of the gourd family native to the Western Hemisphere. Squash varies widely in size, shape and color. Generally, they’re divided into two categories — summer squash and winter squash . Summer squash have thin, edible skins and soft seeds. The tender flesh has a high water content, a mild flavor and doesn’t require long cooking.
The most widely available varieties of summer squash are Crookneck, Pattypan and Zucchini. Summer squash is best from early through late summer, although some varieties are available year-round in certain regions. Select the smaller specimens with bright-colored skin free of spots and bruises. Summer squash is very perishable and should be refrigerated in a plastic bag for no more than five days. It can be prepared by a variety of methods including steaming, baking, sautéing and deep-frying. Summer squash are high in vitamins A and C as well as niacin.
Winter squash varieties include acorn (popular because one squash easily equals two servings), banana (beautiful color), butternut (nuttier flavor), hubbard (appearance rather than flavor), spaghetti (mild flavor and stringy, spaghetti-like appearance after cooking), and turban (sweeter flavor but mostly known for the beautiful, colorful rind which makes a fantastic centerpiece or a spectacular soup tureen when hollowed out) and most are available year-round. However, winter squash is best from early fall through the winter.
All varieties have hard outer rinds that surround sweet flesh that range in color from golden yellow to deep orange. They arrive late in the growing season and have a long shelf life, often referred to as “good keepers” back in the day of the root cellar. They have been a staple in winter and spring when other vegetables have historically been harder to find.
Unlike summer squash, winter squash must be cooked. The inedible, thick, hard rind makes pumpkin and winter squash difficult to peel, so it’s easier to cook unpeeled and scoop out the cooked flesh. When shopping, choose pumpkins or squash that are heavy for their size and without blemishes. They are rich in potassium, iron, vitamins A & C, and high in fiber.
My research provided some interesting pumpkin/winter squash tidbits such as:
- Pumpkins are 90% water.
- Pumpkin flowers are edible (of course, ever tried a squash blossom?)
- Morton, Illinois, home of the Libby Corporation’s pumpkin industry, is the pumpkin capital of the world.
- Pumpkin was once recommended as a cure for freckles and a remedy for snake bites.
So, is there a difference between a winter squash and pumpkin? Not really. If a recipe calls for a winter squash and all you can find is a pumpkin – go for it. The distinction seems to be mainly in what you choose to call them.
How about just calling them delicious?