In Alexander Dumas’ distinguished Grand Dictionary de Cuisine, he includes directions on how to cook an elephant. For many people, elephant cookery is less daunting than dealing with the large category of winter squash.
Winter squashes (member of the Cuburbita family that includes cucumbers and melons) come in a plethora of varieties, shapes, sizes and colors. Despite their outward differences, winter squashes, with few exceptions, are all handled alike, at least for cooking purposes.
Winter squash can be baked whole, peeled for purées and soups, cut in half and stuffed, dried, candied or sautéed. Winter squashes are in season from September through March and can be stored in cool (50°F, 10°C) dark, and rather dry (>65% humidity) place for several months.
As with other vegetables, you should be looking for locally produced heirloom varieties of winter squash. Make sure that you select firm, thick-shelled squash that feel heavy for their size. Wrap cut squash in plastic and store in the refrigerator up to one week.
ACORN SQUASH: These resemble an acorn in shape and typically measuring up to six inches in length. Acorn squash can be found in varieties with coloring of dark green, white and gold. They are popular because of their small size – one squash can be cut in half and baked to make two servings. The biggest drawback to this variety is that the rind is quite hard and therefore difficult to cut. Select acorn squash with as much green on the rind as possible. Substitutes: Buttercup squash (drier) or Hubbard squash (much larger).
BANANA SQUASH: A long oblong-shaped squash with a tan or cream-colored thick outer skin and a fine textured inner flesh. This variety is so large that grocers usually cut it into smaller chunks before putting it out. It’s tasty, but its biggest virtue is the beautiful golden color of its flesh. Substitutes: Butternut squash (drier with nuttier, sweeter flavor) or Sugar Pumpkin (sweeter).
BRODÉ GALEUX D’EYSINES SQUASH: Meaning “Embroidered with warts from Eysines”. One of the most unusual and beautiful winter squashes. A French heirloom with salmon-peach colored and amazing warty skin. The flesh is extremely smooth, flavorful and deep orange. Substitutes: Butternut squash, Acorn squash or Turban squash.
BUTTERCUP SQUASH: Round in shape and grows with a very distinctive protruding ring around the flower end opposite the stem end. Dark green with narrow, grey stripes, the thin outer skin surrounds a rich, sweet-flavored, somewhat nutty tasting orange flesh that is fine-grained, creamy textured and dense in consistency. The biggest shortcoming of this variety is that it tends to be a bit dry. Substitutes: Butternut squash (nuttier, sweeter flavor; easier to peel when raw), Acorn squash (less flavorful, moister) or Delicata squash (more flavorful and creamier).
BUTTERNUT SQUASH: A long, pear-shaped squash with a tan skin and orange flesh. This squash is very easy to use. It’s small enough to serve a four person family without leftovers, and the rind is thin enough to peel off with a vegetable peeler. The flavor is sweet, moist and slightly nutty. Substitutes: Buttercup squash (not as sweet and moist; harder to peel when raw), Acorn squash (not as sweet; harder to peel when raw) or Delicata squash (creamier).
CHINESE WINTER SQUASH or WINTER MELON: Large with a waxy dark green speckled skin that contains tiny prickly hairs. The outer skin covers a white firm inner flesh. This vegetable is widely grown to be eaten raw or commonly hollowed out to be used as a bowl.
CINDERELLA PUMPKIN: This squash, called Rouge Vif D’Etampes in French, received its name because it resembles Cinderella’s fairytale coach. They have a very thick but sweet-tasting bright orange flesh. They are extremely sweet and relatively high in moisture. Makes great moist purées. Substitutes: Sugar Pumpkin, Butternut squash or Hubbard squash.
DELICATA SQUASH: A long oblong-shaped squash with a cream colored, green striped thick outer skin and a golden fine-textured inner flesh. This is one of the tastier winter squashes with creamy pulp that tastes a bit like sweet potatoes. Substitutes: Butternut squash, Buttercup squash or sweet potato.
HUBBARD SQUASH: They have a thick bumpy skin that may range in color from grayish-blue to green to bright orange. Hubbards and the heirloom variety called “Sweet Meat” have tasty flesh, but are very large and not easy to handle because their rind is hard to cut through. Substitutes: Sugar Pumpkin, Buttercup squash (easier to peel when raw, but with a drier, sweet flavor) or Banana squash.
KABOCHA SQUASH: This orange-fleshed winter squash has a striated green rind. It’s sweeter, drier and less fibrous than other winter squash, and it tastes a bit like sweet potatoes. In Japan, Kabocha squash symbolizes good health and luck. Substitutes: Butternut squash, Acorn squash or Turban squash.
RED KURI SQUASH: A thick-skinned orange colored squash that has the appearance of an oblong pumpkin without the ridges. Inside the hard outer skin there is a firm flesh that provides a very delicate and mellow flavor similar to the taste of chestnuts. Substitutes: Sweet Dumpling, Butternut squash or Kabocha.
SPAGHETTI SQUASH: After it’s cooked, you can dig a fork into the flesh of a spaghetti squash and pull out long yellow strands that resemble spaghetti. Though they taste like squash, the “noodles” can serve as a low-calorie substitute for pasta. Substitutes: Butternut squash, Banana squash or Sweet Dumpling squash will taste similar, but no other squash will form strands when cooked.
SUGAR PUMPKIN: Also known as a pie pumpkin. Do not use the larger jack o’lantern pumpkin variety, as its flesh is too watery and not as sweet as that of the sugar pumpkin. Canned pumpkin purée is convenient and a good substitute for the fresh. Substitutes: Hubbard squash especially in pies), Butternut squash (also good in pies) or sweet potatoes.
SWEET DUMPLING SQUASH: This is a fairly small squash, so it can be cut in half, baked and served as an individual portion. The flesh is sweeter and drier than that of other winter squash and the peel is soft enough to be eaten when cooked. Substitutes: Butternut squash, Kabocha squash or Acorn squash.
TURBAN SQUASH: This squash has a gorgeous rind, but the flesh is not very flavorful. It makes a terrific autumn centerpiece or you can hollow it out and use it as a serving vessel. Substitutes: Butternut squash or Acorn squash.
Stay tuned tommorow for my recipe for Roasted Squash Gnocchi with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds and Brown Butter Sauce.