In direct contrast to its name, winter squash is actually grown in the summer and harvested in the fall. The thick, tough outer layer and firm flesh inside makes it possible to store this garden treat for several months, which means it is available as a fresh vegetable throughout the winter months.
One of the most popular forms of winter squash is called butternut squash. It is a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes gourds and melons, and it is native to the Western Hemisphere.
Butternut squash most likely originated in Mexico. It was in 1944 that butternut squash was introduced to consumers and made a huge and lasting impression.
Growing on a long trailing vine, butternut squash is cultivated in the warmer climates of the Southern U.S. and Central American regions for its edible fruit, flowers and seeds.
Although it’s known as a winter variety, butternut squash is readily available from September through mid-December; however, it is easily purchased year-round since it can be imported from South America.
On the exterior, squash has an elongated, thick neck with a pear-shaped body. The flesh ranges in color from a golden yellow to orange, and the seeds are very similar to pumpkin seeds or pepitas. The nutty and sweet flavor of butternut squash makes it a perfect substitute in any recipe that calls for pumpkin.
But there is more to butternut squash than its versatility and amazing taste. This vegetable is packed full of Vitamin A, fiber, potassium and magnesium. Like other vegetables, it is sodium free and cholesterol free. Squash in general is a very low-calorie food; and therefore, it is often recommended for weight maintenance or weight loss.
Butternut squash has more Vitamin A than pumpkin. It provides 300 percent of the daily recommendation of Vitamin A in a 1-cup serving.
Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant required for maintaining the body’s immune system, vision and reproduction. It also helps the lungs, heart and kidneys to function properly. It is essential for healthy eyesight, and research suggests it is protective against lung and oral cancers.
Butternut squash also delivers a significant amount of B vitamins, such as folate, riboflavin, niacin, Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine), thiamin and pantothenic acid. The mineral profile of butternut squash is similar to pumpkin in that it delivers adequate levels of iron, copper, calcium, potassium and phosphorus.
The seeds of the squash deliver fiber and unsaturated fatty acids for heart health. The seeds are extremely rich in protein as well.
You can buy whole or precut packaged butternut squash. The squash should feel heavy and have a firm, attached stem. The outer surface should be smooth, without spots, cuts or bruises. The squash can be stored at room temperature for many weeks, as long as it is stored in a cool, non-humid and well-vented area.
For convenience, it also is available pre-cut and packaged. The prepackaged type should be stored in the refrigerator for no more than just a few days before use.
To prepare a whole butternut squash, always be very careful as the squash has a very tough exterior. Begin by washing the outer shell to remove dirt and any residual insecticides or pesticides. Next, slice the stem off; and then, cut the squash into two longways halves. Take out the innermost lining that resembles a net and set the seeds aside. Peel off the outer skin to cube up the meat for most recipes; however, leave the skin intact if baking the whole half.
Butternut squash can be used in vegetable salads to add crunchiness. The squash can be baked, stuffed, stir-fried, mashed, sautéed or steamed. Butternut squash is perfect for mixing into casseroles, quinoa, soups, chili, pies, pasta dishes, bread, muffins and pancakes or in recipes as a substitute for pumpkin. It pairs perfectly with cinnamon, maple syrup, balsamic vinegar and smoked paprika.
And don’t forget the seeds. They can be roasted for a nutritious snack, to add crunch to salads or as a garnish in soup.
Butternut squash has become one of my favorite vegetables. It’s versatility in recipes lends a sweet, nutty flavor that is perfect for fall and winter dishes, and the nutritional profile sells itself, as it offers an amazing amount of Vitamin A, B vitamins, fiber and minerals.
Butternut Squash Soup
1 package of pre-cubed Butternut squash
2-3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 half of a medium sweet onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
Dash of nutmeg (optional)
Dollop sour cream
Pumpkin seeds for garnish
Sauté onion and garlic in sauce pan with 2 tablespoons olive oil until tender. Add squash and sauté for about 5 minutes more, stirring frequently. Add 2 cups of chicken broth and let simmer on low for 20-30 minutes until squash is very tender. Place mixture in a blender or use an immersion blender to puree squash and onion mixture. Add more chicken broth if soup needs to be thinned. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste or even a dash of nutmeg. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche and sprinkle a few pumpkin seeds or pepitas on top for garnish.
Butternut Squash Salad
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed, or pre-cut squash
2 tablespoons refined coconut oil
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
5 ounces arugula
2 beets, cooked and cubed
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1 ounce crumbled goat cheese
1/2 cup raw pecans
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon agave nectar, honey or maple syrup
1 garlic clove, minced
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Place butternut squash cubes in a bowl with the coconut oil, cinnamon and sea salt. Toss until well coated. Spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and roast for 40 minutes until tender and golden. While the squash is roasting, place the arugula on a platter or in a large bowl. Top with cooked beets. Place pumpkin seeds in a small skillet on medium heat, stirring frequently. After about 5 minutes the seeds will start to pop and turn brown when they are toasted. Set aside in a bowl. Place pecans, olive oil, water, balsamic vinegar, agave and garlic in a food processor. Process until smooth. Sprinkle dressing over greens and beets. When the squash is done roasting, add it to the salad immediately or wait until it comes to room temperature. Sprinkle with seeds and goat cheese. Drizzle remaining dressing on top and toss.
Julie Hudson is a dietician at Lake Martin Wellness Center in Dadeville.