During the cooler months, when darkness descends upon us early, it’s the perfect time to enjoy a home-cooked meal. And a classic ingredient in many seasonal household dishes is winter squash. The many varieties of this wonderful gourd not only pack a flavorful punch—their health benefits are just as powerful.
Winter variety squash tends to contain more beta-carotene and B vitamins than its summer cousin. Beta-carotene is known for its ability to fight cancer, heart disease and even cataracts, and its benefits extend to the lungs, reducing inflammation and emphysema.
Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s registered dietitian Debra Nessel, RD, CDE, notes that the combination of anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants found in winter squash “may help protect your health in several ways, such as warding off cancer, heart disease and the macular degeneration that can lead to sight loss.” Nessel recommends roasting or baking winter squash to preserve nutrients.
Brimming with nutrients, winter squash varieties also deliver an abundance of fiber, making them filling and exceptionally heartfriendly! Nessel suggests incorporating winter squash into your diet two to three times a week; enjoying even more servings is just fine. Although winter squash is not “commonly allergenic,” Nessel says that individuals with renal insufficiency should probably limit their intake of varieties such as acorn, butternut and hubbard, as they are high in potassium.
There are a wide variety of winter squashes to choose from, including butternut, turban, acorn and calabaza, to name a few. “All varieties are excellent sources of vitamins A and even C,” says Nessel. When shopping for squash, try to find one relatively small in size and free of bruises and spots. The tough outer skin of winter squash allows it to be stored for a month or more.
Quick Recipe Ideas
Seeds from winter squash make a great snack food, just like pumpkin seeds. Scoop the pulp and seeds from inside the squash and separate the seeds. Place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and lightly roast in the oven at 160-170° for 15-20 minutes. By roasting them for a relatively short time at a low temperature, you help minimize damage to their healthy oils. Linoleic acid (the polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid) and oleic acid (the same monounsaturated fatty acid that is plentiful in olive oil) account for about 75% of the fat found in the seeds.
Spaghetti squash is a great alternative to pasta. Bake squash, allow it to cool, then “comb” out the strands with a fork and toss with your favorite sauce!
There are also some spices that particularly enhance the flavor of winter squash. Try using any of the following: allspice, anise seed, brown sugar, butter, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, ginger, mace, nutmeg, paprika, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme and turmeric.
Baking Winter Squash
Preheat oven to 375°. Cut squash in half lengthwise. Use a large soup spoon or a melon baller to scoop out and remove seeds. (See sidebar to learn to bake seeds.) Lightly oil or butter a baking sheet or pan. Place squash cut side down on the sheet and bake until tender when pierced with a fork, which can take 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the type and size of the squash.