Since there’s candy aplenty this time of year, it’s good to know that the season redeems itself with some guilt-free sweet treats. Winter squash often begin gracing the produce section just as you’re starting to tire of melon and berries. In the same family as the zucchini and yellow summer varieties you’ve been enjoying with warmer weather, winter squash is simply the sweater-and-boots version characterized by a thicker rind and sweet flesh. And the good news is, all types are loaded with potassium and the cancer-fighting antioxidant beta-carotene. Plus, because of the natural sugars present in winter squash (which are amplified in baking), you can assuage your throbbing sweet tooth while filling up on veggies.
Winter Squash – 6 Ways for a Sweet Delight
With a mild, nutty flavor, butternut squash is an easy addition to a variety of dishes. Steam chunks until tender, then puree with a little skim milk, a tablespoon of Greek yogurt, salt, pepper and cinnamon for a creamy side dish that squeezes in more nutrition than traditional potatoes. If you’re looking to pump up your (or your kids’) mac and cheese, just stir some of the puree into the pasta pot.
Good news! There’s no need to worry about peeling this one. Simply cut in half crosswise and scoop out the seeds and fibers. For a sweet side, fill the hollow with a mixture of chopped pear and dried cranberries with a little cinnamon, butter, and brown sugar. For savory flavor, rub the cut flesh with olive oil and sprinkle with whatever fresh herbs you have hand (try sage and garlic for a change), then garnish with shaved parmesan just before serving. No matter whether you go sweet or savory, baking your squash in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes (or until it’s tender) is all you need to do.
If you’re a longtime butternut squash fan, prepare to be impressed. For the same deep flavor and smooth texture, the delicata squash delivers. Even better, it does not require the cumbersome and slippery peeling that comes with the butternut, and is much easier to slice. All it takes to go from raw form to dinner side is simply this: halve, remove seeds, and slice the halves into 1-inch pieces. Next, spread the pieces on a baking dish, toss with a tablespoon of olive oil and a drizzle of maple syrup, and roast in the oven at 425 degrees until tender.
Spaghetti squash’s unique, stringy flesh is just like the name implies. So, add a family-friendly veggie punch to your meal by tossing a portion of spaghetti pasta with an equal portion of cooked spaghetti squash. Then, mix in some white beans and top with your usual sauce and a sprinkle of parmesan. It’s easy to cook spaghetti squash – simply pierce with a fork and bake whole at 375 degrees for an hour. If you’re in a big hurry, you can also pierce the flesh generously with a knife and pop into the microwave for 10 minutes. For both cooking methods, simply cool before cutting, then use a fork to scrape away seeds to uncover the spaghetti-like strands.
If you like sweet potatoes, give this winter squash a try – the flavor is similar. Just as with acorn squash, you can prepare it simply by halving, seasoning and baking until tender. Shake up your menu and try it in recipes that call for sweet potato – like soups or stews. For a quick soup, mix a slurry of squash puree and Greek yogurt in a pan over medium-high heat, then thin with 1% milk and spice how you like. A dash of curry powder and a few scoops of applesauce are a tasty place to start.
Don’t forget the most popular squash of them all! Skip the big pumpkins – they’re only good for jack o’ lanterns – and and go with 2-5 pound “pie” pumpkins meant for cooking. For a simple side, roast peeled sections with a little olive oil, oregano, and salt. And pumpkin puree – whether you go fresh or canned – makes a great addition to waffle batter or whole wheat muffins. For a vegan option in baking, simply sub ¼ cup pumpkin puree where the recipe calls for eggs.
The Bottom Line
Get yourself in the mood for autumn by redefining your definition of seasonal sweets. Instead of candy and the usual diet-busting foods that appear from now until the new year, taste-test a few winter squash to celebrate the season.
Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Master Degree in Public Health. An experienced nutrition counselor, writer and public speaker, Beth specializes in translating complex nutrition information into practical concepts. Beth was awarded a Nutrition Communications Fellowship to the National Cancer Institute, and has worked on the internationally recognized Nutrition Action Healthletter of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.