Originally written for The Washington Post, November 13, 2018
Fall is here, with its delicious foods and flavors. Cinnamon, apple varieties, Brussels sprouts, beets, potatoes, turnips and parsnips will be abundant on tables and trending in recipes. And the star of many a produce stand will be a colorful assortment of winter squash — including butternut, acorn, delicata and turban.
Though more varieties of winter squash are becoming more widely available, there are facts about these gourds that many cooks and diners don’t know, and that should be taken into consideration when preparing and consuming winter squash.
While most people consider it a vegetable, a squash is botanically a fruit, because it produces seeds. Most varieties originate from the Andes, with some native to Africa. Summer squash, despite the name, is generally available year-round; varieties include zucchini, yellow, pattypan and crookneck. Common winter squash, such as butternut and spaghetti, are also available year-round, but other varieties, such as turban and fairytale, typically peak November to December. With summer squash, and some winter squash, the entire plant can be eaten — meat, skin, seeds, vines and flowers.
Often, cooks and diners assume everything about winter squash is healthy because we think of it as a vegetable. Although there are many nutritional benefits in winter squashes, such as vitamins A and C and fiber, some varieties differ from vegetables such as greens, broccoli and even from summer squashes in an important way: These winter squashes, along with corn, potatoes and peas, are starchy vegetables. That means that, calorically, many are more similar to grains than to vegetables, and their carbohydrate content can be much higher than vegetables. Butternut, acorn and pumpkin squash are calorically similar to a starch, for example, while spaghetti and kabocha are calorically closer to a vegetable.
A cup of steamed broccoli has 25 calories and five grams of carbohydrates, and a cup of spaghetti squash has 30 calories and seven grams of carbs. A cup of steamed butternut squash, however, has 85 calories and 20 grams of carbohydrates. That’s a significant difference.
If you’re a diner watching your calorie and carb counts because you’re trying to control your weight or blood sugar, you should treat some winter squashes as a starch. When building a balanced meal, choose several servings of non-starchy vegetables such as greens, carrots, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage. A good rule of thumb is to make half your plate veggies. Then round out the other half, depending on your total calorie needs, with one to two servings of winter squashes (a serving equals about a fistful), animal- or plant-based proteins, and healthy fats such as oils, nuts, seeds and avocado.
It’s also important to pay attention to how squashes are cooked. Avoid the traditional fall recipes that load them with butter and brown sugar; those add calories and negate some of the nutritional benefits. Instead, steam or roast to avoid adding extra calories (roasting will naturally sweeten squash), and season with cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and sage. Also consider taking advantage of the fiber by using varieties with edible skin. Experiment with new flavors and textures, and use this seasonal food as a replacement for starches such as rice, pasta and potatoes.
Here are some of the more starchy winter squash varieties, with cooking ideas that go beyond the often-used fats and sweeteners. Remember to wash the skin before cooking, especially if you’re going to eat it. To make it easier to cut, first microwave for three to five minutes to soften the skin and meat a bit.
Acorn: The shape of these makes for fun meals because they can act like a bowl; roast and fill with other veggies and/or protein. If you roast them long enough, the skin can be eaten, too.
Butternut: The traditional choice for soups. Instead of adding cream and sugar, as called for in many recipes, use broth, onions and garlic, and consider curry for additional flavor. Try pureeing with carrots or apples for extra nutrients.
Pumpkin: A favorite for carving and, of course, pies, pumpkin can also be made into yummy soups, breads and vegetable-based curries and quiches. Experiment with different varieties, such as Cinderella and sugar pie. This is also an excellent choice for enjoying the seeds; simply clean and roast them, and consider different spice mixes. Try sweet, with cinnamon, nutmeg and a dash of honey; or spicy, with red or cayenne pepper.
Turban: This variety looks as beautiful as a table decoration as it does on your plate. The shape also serves as a great bowl for a meal. As a savory dish, roast and cube, then sauté with onions and herbs such as sage and an acid such as lemon. Mix with roasted winter vegetables and a tahini-based dressing.
The following varieties are lower in calories and carbohydrates. Consider adding these to your plate and subbing for rice or potatoes, or their more starchy winter squash counterparts.
Delicata: With this variety, you can easily enjoy the skin because it’s so thin; it adds texture and taste. A simple preparation approach is to cut in half, de-seed, slice into half-moons, and roast with oil, salt and pepper to throw into a vegetable-rich (non-starchy vegetables) salad.
Kabocha: You also can eat the skin and get extra fiber with this variety. It’s meatier than delicata, with its own sweet flavor. A personal favorite cooking method is to roast wedges with cinnamon and salt for a sweet and savory side.
Spaghetti: A favorite to substitute for traditional pasta. Health-wise, it’s a great choice, too, because it’s low in calories and carbs. Spaghetti squash also has more fiber and nutrients than pastas made from refined flours. Steam, scoop out the strands and add whatever you would add to pasta: a meat sauce, roasted veggies, or simply some pepper and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.