10 Very Unique Varieties of Winter Squash
A Season of Squash
This year was much different for me. When the fall harvest came around, I set off to discover all that winter squashes had to offer. As a gardener and a cook, I must admit that no ingredient seemed as daunting as winter squash. I mean sure, we've all heard of pumpkins and butternut squash, but those weren't what I was after. I wanted to work with the odd squashes! Now that I've already cooked them all, I'd like to pass the knowledge down. My goal in this article is to introduce you to 10 unique varieties of winter squash that generally are very intimidating to home cooks. I'll also be providing you with culinary tidbits in order to get some of your own creative juices flowing. Limitless squash must be explored.
1. White Acorn Squash
Almost everyone in the United States has come to be familiar with Green Acorn squash, but not so much with the white variety. The reason? White Acorn Squash is grown in much smaller quantities and therefore is sometimes never available in certain areas. If they are available in your area, the pale yellow flesh with its sweet flavor and smooth texture make for great eating.
- Culinary Application — In contrast to the bold bright orange flesh of Green Acorns, the pale yellow flesh of the White Acorns is surprisingly reserved and much more mild. With a lighter taste on the palate, white acorn squash puree is great added to risottos. I'm pretty sure that there's not a better squash to pair with rice than White Acorn.
2. Spaghetti Squash
I'll admit, Spaghetti Squash is not the most unique on my list. Most people are already somewhat familiar with this squash but hardly use it. For that reason alone, I found it wise to add it to my list. Spaghetti squash is characterized by its yellow oval shape and yellow flesh that breaks into "noodles" when cooked. Traditionally, the best tasting Spaghetti squash will be the smaller ones from 5-8 inches in length.
- Culinary Application — Bake or steam your Spaghetti Squash and use a fork to gently break apart the "noodles". The noodles obtained from the Spaghetti squash may be used in substitution for regular pasta. I've eaten Spaghetti Squash with tomato sauces, white sauces and even pesto. It's all tasty stuff. My favorite way to eat Spaghetti squash though is to toss the cooked squash noodles with butter, capers and parsley. It makes a great side dish.
3. Cheese Pumpkins
Now I've seen these labeled as Cheese, Long Island, and even Fairytale pumpkins. The names are bound to differ from area to area, but the fruit will not. Cheese pumpkins have a distinctly flattened shape and a very dull orange colored skin.
- Culinary Application — Contrary to popular belief, the best pumpkin pie doesn't come from Pie Pumpkins, it comes from Cheese Pumpkins. The flesh of cheese pumpkins is not only a brighter orange, it is also is denser and contains more natural sugars and nutrients than your standard pie pumpkin. A denser, more nutrient packed flesh provides pumpkin pies with a rich and complex flavor. Plus less moisture is also beneficial to the pie making process as the filling will setup firm and not go watery.
4. Carnival Squash
Normally I'll try to stick with heirloom varieties, but this colorful hybrid was irresistible. the Carnival squash is the product of a cross between a Green Acorn and a Sweet Dumpling Squash. The resulting squash is extremely colorful, shaped like a sweet dumpling and has a flesh that is sweet and very creamy.
- Culinary Uses — I like to keep it simple with this small squash. Just half, bake for 30 minutes at 350F, and then lather up the halves with butter, cinnamon, nutmeg and a little brown sugar. If that's not enough for you, try using the squash halves as bowls to fit in spices, granola and dried fruit. Add milk to enjoy an excellent warm cereal.
5. Turban Squash
Every autumn season I see bins full of Turban Squash labeled as a decorative squash. Granted they do make for a great centerpiece on the holiday table, but labeling them strictly as decorative is deceiving. Characterized by their almost mushroom shape, these squash are also very good in the kitchen.
- Culinary Application — If you're on the lookout for a soup squash, Turbans are just what you need. When roasted and pureed, the mild hazelnut flavor is perfect for creamy winter soups. Roast potatoes, turnips and turban squash. Puree the veg with your favorite spices and add to chicken stock to simmer for 10-15 minutes. Soups can be made to be sweet or savory.
6. Buttercup Squash
You might recognize the odd shape of this squash because yes, they are a close member of the Turban family. What sets apart the Buttercup Squash from Turbans is its dark green skin and bright orange flesh. They're much better eating than Turban Squash, but similarly, they're often referred to as a decorative squash.
- Culinary Application — From a flavor standpoint, Buttercup squash closely resemble Butternut Squash in the fact that the flesh is dense, low moisture, sweet and creamy. While Buttercups work well in pies, baked goods and soups, my favorite way to enjoy this squash is with pasta. Roasted and cubed buttercup squash is perfect when tossed with flat noodles, sauteed onions and minced garlic. Dress the pasta with brown butter, sage, lemon zest and Parmesan cheese. Even people who claim not to like squash will be wanting more.
7. Delicata Squash
If you're lucky enough to live in an area that cultivates Delicata Squash, then your early autumn season is bound to be tasty. These oblong-shaped squash are characterized by their yellow color and dark green stripes. Although classified as a winter squash, Delicatas are actually very closely related to summer squashes.
- The yellow/orange and creamy flesh is sweet and a little nutty in flavor. I find these squash perfect for making bread. Follow your normal zucchini bread recipe but substitute in roasted and pureed Delicata squash for the zucchini. You'll be amazed by how complex and fulfilling the bread is.
8. Lakota Squash
Modern America is hardly built around the customs and traditions of the native people that once roamed and cultivated the land, but squash can still be seen as a reminder of these efficient and sustainable peoples. After all, European settlers may have never made it through harsh winters without help from the Natives introduction of winter squashes. Times have changed greatly with the development of newer varieties of winter squash, but the Lakota Squash stands unique as a prized heirloom variety with history dating back hundreds of years.
- Culinary Application — As with almost every other winter squash, the Lakota Squash can be pureed and easily worked into pies and baked goods, but generally I reserve this squash for something a little less sophisticated. Trying to follow in the footsteps of the native peoples, I'll normally cook this squash whole. Cut out the top of the squash as you would a Jack o' Lantern and remove the guts and seeds. With the cavity now clear, add your favorite meats and vegetables to the middle. Bake the whole squash for at least a couple hours at 300F. To create a meal, remove the meats and vegetables and chop up to desired size. Scoop out the flesh of the Lakota Squash and puree with your favorite spices. In a soup pot, add the meat, veggies and puree along with some chicken broth. Simmer for 10 minutes and enjoy a wonderful stew.
9. Arikara Squash
Another heirloom variety of North American squash is the Arikara. This green oblong squash gets its name from the Arikara tribe who once grew this squash throughout what is now modern day North and South Dakota. To the dismay of many, this squash is extremely rare and almost never shows up at markets and stores. To get a hold of one of these squash, you'll have to search hard at farmers markets, or better yet, grow them yourself.
- Culinary Application — Known for its dense and low moisture flesh, the slightly sweet and nutty flavor of the Arikara squash is perfect for soups and pies. Due to the flesh being much denser than most other winter squashes, Arikara soups and pies are very creamy and never stringy.
Kabocha refers to a small family of squashes most commonly known as Japanese Pumpkins. These squat 2-5 pound squashes are characterized by their dark green skin and occasional green or white stripes. The flesh of the Kabocha is orange and thought to contain the highest content of natural sugars of all winter squashes.
- Culinary Uses — Soups, pies and numerous side dishes can be perfected using this small squash. Having come from a Japanese Heritage though, I feel its only right to share a technique from its homeland, Tempura. Yes, Kabocha is a popular ingredient for tempura! When coated in the light batter and fried quickly, the Kabocha is light, fluffy and tastes almost like a sweet potato. I'd love to share some sort of recipe for tempura batter, but it's an art I've yet to master.
I hope that I have restored a sliver of confidence in you as a home cook. Winter Squash are great ingredients to cook with. Plus they're inexpensive and if you're efficient, you can really get a lot for very little! Don't get freaked out by the little buggers in the bins, just pick one up and say, "I'm going to cook you today!" Thanks for reading my article on unique varieties of winter squash.