Winter squash: Eat it for its many health benefits

All varieties of winter squash offer a plethora of nutrients and can be prepared in a variety of ways.

Winter squash is really an edible gourd. There are many varieties, flavors and textures. Their outer shells can be smooth, bumpy, thick or thin. Choose firm, well-shaped squash that are heavy for their size and have a hard, tough skin. A tender rind is a sign of poor quality in winter squash varieties. Avoid squash with sunken or moldy spots, cuts or punctures in the skin.

The most popular winter squash varieties include: acorn, buttercup, butternut, Hubbard and spaghetti. Winter squash is a good source of fiber, potassium, niacin, iron and beta carotene. The deeper the orange color, the higher the beta carotene content. Beta carotene is converted into Vitamin A in the body, which is essential for skin, vision and bone development.

In preparing winter squash most recipes require cutting it in half. Thoroughly scrub outside of squash, cut off and discard the stem end and scrape off the other end. It is important to first wash the outside of the squash to prevent any contaminants from getting inside the squash when being cut. Cutting through this thick skin of the squash can be difficult; it is suggested to pierce the squash several times with a sharp knife and put the whole squash in the microwave for about three minutes. This will make it easier to cut.

When squash is cut in half, remove seeds and stringy fibers. Cook squash with cut sides down in a shallow baking dish and bake in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 30 minutes or longer. Check for doneness by piercing with fork or knife. When tender, remove from oven and let cool. Spoon out the soft flesh and mash with a fork or process in a blender or food processor. Use in any recipe calling for cooked mashed or pureed squash. Squash pieces can also be placed in a shallow pan with ¼ cup water, covered tightly and microwaved on high six minutes per pound or until tender.

Different types of squash can be substituted for each other in your favorite squash recipes. All varieties are great for pureeing, roasting and baking. Once squash is cooked and mashed, it can be used in soups, main dishes, vegetable side dishes, even breads, muffins and pies. So take advantage of these great fall vegetables at your local farmer’s markets.

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