Fall, the season for squashes, pumpkins, and gourds, is in full swing. The markets are filled with countless varieties in beautiful colors and odd shapes and sizes. What better idea than to try a few new recipes with them?
Squashes, pumpkins, and gourds, members of the Cucurbitaceae family, are considered fruits in the botanical world because they contain seeds within, and grow from the flowering part of the plant. In the kitchen, though, we tend to treat them as vegetables, in savory soups, stews, and roasts—the exception being, of course, those beloved sweet pumpkin-flavored desserts.
There are over 700 species, which vary enormously. Some have hard and bumpy skins, others are smooth and tender. Some are mini enough to be hand-held, others are enormous. All are wonderfully colorful, with skins from the palest of yellows to bright orange and russets, to the deepest of greens.
Most gourds are grown for decorative purposes, and they’re the perfect natural accessories for decorating tables and sideboards. A ceramic bowl filled with mini gourds makes a wonderful autumnal centerpiece. To make them last into December and transition into Christmas, I paint them and a few pine cones in glossy gold paint, to make glittering arrangements for the table.
Edible squash, meanwhile, are loaded with antioxidants, vitamin C, potassium, and other necessary vitamins and minerals, while being naturally low in calories and high in flavor. Good for you? Absolutely, and especially during the dark, cold winter months.
Winter squash—which include pumpkins—are hardier and thicker-skinned than their softer summer relatives. This makes them able to be stored for long periods of time—through the winter months, hence their name—and better suited to long roasting or stewing.
Pumpkins, those of jack o’lantern fame, tend to have a tough flesh that is best used for slow-cooking soups, or pureeing and sweetening to make pies, cookies, and muffins. (Be aware, though, that all those pumpkin spice lattes and pumpkin-scented candles are typically flavored with a combination of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla—not a hint of the actual vegetable.) Pumpkin seeds are delicious salted and roasted for garnishes.
As a general rule, the larger the pumpkin, the tougher the flesh. In the market, pick smaller varieties for eating, leaving the enormous ones for carving and decorating. One of my favorites is the Long Island Cheese pumpkin, because it resembles a whole wheel of cheese and is perfect for roasting, making for a wonderful presentation. I also love using large hollowed-out pumpkins to serve soups, chili, or even cheesy mashed potatoes when entertaining a crowd. (Leave your pumpkin serving bowl raw; if you roast it, it will fall apart and make a huge mess. I would know!)
Another favorite is acorn squash, which looks like a large acorn. Because of its smaller size, it’s ideal for individual servings, simply roasted whole or stuffed with wild rice and dried fruits.
Butternut squash is the sweetest and most flavorful of them all, and thus one of the most versatile, whether for roasting or for making creamy soups and stews.
And let’s not forget the latest fad, spaghetti squash. You can roast or steam the whole squash, slice it in half and remove the seeds, and then use a fork to shred the flesh into delicious strands, to be tossed with pesto or simply sautéed with garlic and brown butter.
That’s just the beginning. There are also banana squash, buttercup squash, kabocha squash, Blue Hubbard squash… the list goes on! All have sweet, nutty flesh just waiting to become a part of your fall and winter cooking repertoires.
Here are a few ideas and recipes to get you started.
Victoria de la Maza is an award-winning cookbook author, columnist, and international TV host. Passionate about great food, she combines American traditions with her European heritage to create classic-with-a-twist recipes and ideas for stylish entertaining at home.