What are Winter Squash?
Winter squash is a group of several species of annual fruit in the genus Cucurbita, including the popular butternut, acorn, delicata, and spaghetti squash. What we call “pumpkins” are also winter squash. Winter squash is different from summer squash, like the zucchini, because it’s harvested and eaten when the seeds are matured and the skin has hardened. Due to their hard rind and sweet dense flesh, they can be stored for long periods in cool dark storage, up to a year from harvest.
History and Facts
Wild squash originates from South America, where it was originally selected and cultivated for its edible seeds. Squash seeds have been found in Ecuadorian caves dating over 12,000 years old. It’s said that squash was domesticated before maize and beans, approximately 10,000 years ago.
The Haudenosaunee (known as Iroquois) people have been growing winter squash in Upstate and Central New York for thousands of years. Valued for their long storage and nutrition they provide during the cold North Country winters. It has traditionally been grown as part of Three Sisters Gardens. Which is a growing method developed and used by Haudenosaunee people where corn, beans, and squash are grown together to provide each other with structural support, nutrients, weed suppression, and water conservation. Winter squash was used alongside her other two sisters, beans and corn, by the Haudenosaunee in many ways. One example is squash in a cooked a corn stew flavored with wild edible plants and game like venison or beaver.
Winter squash continued to be a valuable sustenance crop for European colonists and early homesteaders in the Northeast. It was commonly mashed and eaten on its own, or incorporated into other dishes. You can see heirloom varieties of winter squash growing in the King’s Garden at the Historic Fort Ticonderoga. Some recognizable varieties of winter squash grown in the region throughout history are the Boston Marrow, Hubbard, and Turban squash.
How it’s Grown
Mexico and Spain lead the world in winter squash production, meanwhile, the United States accounts for only 4% of the world’s winter squash growing. Many veggie growers In Upstate New York also grow winter squash. Locally grown squash is more nutritious and has a much more complex and delicious flavor. Additionally, their flavor continues to improve the longer a winter squash ripens in good storage conditions. Some of the best acorn squash can be found in February when they have an almost completely orange rind.
Like most cucurbits, squash grow in a variety of soil conditions and require full sun. Most plants are grown directly from seed during warm weather. Squash plants grow either in a vine or bush habit. Winter squash are notorious for being a space-intensive crop. Vine varieties can require up to 100 square feet of space to sprawl. Depending on the species, each winter squash plant can produce about 4-8 squash in one growing season.
Squash plants like warm soil and are very sensitive to the cold, so most winter squash is harvested in early fall when the the skin is hardened. For many farmers in the area, it is a guessing game and rush to protect or harvest winter squash when the first frost is expected. Any frost damage to winter squash significantly impacts its long term storage ability.
How to Enjoy it
Winter squash is rich in fiber, vitamin A, which promotes healthy vision, and C, which promotes a healthy immune system. When roasted, the edible seeds are a healthy source of healthy mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.
Winter squash is usually creamy, sweet, and delicious. It can be eaten roasted, baked, sauteed, steamed, or boiled. Most varieties have edible but very tough skin and seeds that should be removed or eaten around.
There are primarily three methods for cooking winter squash:
-Peel the squash and scoop out seeds. Dice the flesh and steam, roast, or sautee.
-Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Roast in the oven and scoop out the edible flesh to eat when cool enough to handle.
-Perhaps the simplest method, poke several holes in the whole intact squash. Roast the whole squash in the oven until tender. When cool enough to handle, cut in half, scoop out seeds and remove peel.
Roasted Squash Seeds
To eat the seeds, separate the seeds from the stringy flesh surrounding them the best you can. Coat with a little oil and seasoning of your choice. Roast in the oven at about 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes as you would pumpkin seeds. Roasted seeds make a great salad topper or crunchy snack.
Winter Squash Recipes to Try:
Coconut Kabocha from the Essex Farm team
Black Bean and Squash Stew from The Good Bite Kitchen
Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese from Simply Scratch and My Saratoga Kitchen Table with the Saratoga Farmers’ Market
Where to Buy it
Wherever veggies are sold near you! To find the most interesting and flavorful fruits, find them locally grown.
Right now, some great winter-friendly spots to buy local winter squash are:
Plattsburgh: North Country Food Co-Op
Essex: Hub on the Hill
Keeseville: Keeseville Farmacy
Ticonderoga: Ti Natural Foods Co-Op
Lake Placid: Green Goddess Lake Placid
Saratoga: Saratoga Winter Farmers’ Market
Cambridge: Cambridge Valley Winter Farmers’ Market (pre-order and pick-up)
Glens Falls: Glens Falls Indoor Winter Farmers’ Market
Saranac Lake: Saranac Lake Farmers’ Park-It (pre-order and pick-up)
What is your favorite way to enjoy winter squash? Comment below and let us know!
Photo at top: Winter squash in storage at Full and By Farm in Essex NY, Photo by Ben Stechschulte for Essex Farm Institute