Squash, both summer and winter varieties, comes in many shapes and sizes. Some are plain; some are fancy. Some have brilliant colored skins; others have artful shapes, but all are delicious, good for you and easy to prepare.
Just about everyone can get zucchini and yellow squash year round. The prime growing season is May to August, that's why they are called summer squash. They cook up fast and are very versatile, even raw in salads.
When buying zucchini, look for moist stems and slightly prickly but shiny skin as freshness indicators. Purchase them small, no more than 6 inches long. These have less seeds and are more delicate in texture and taste. Yellow squash should be firm and smooth with no indentations or brown spots. Store zucchini and yellow squash in the lettuce crisper, and use within 3 or 4 days. They are both great just sautéed quickly with onion, garlic and a bit of red pepper flakes.
Winter squash are round, elongated, scalloped. pear, and turban shaped with flesh that ranges from golden-yellow to brilliant orange. Most winter squash are vine-type plants whose fruits are harvested when they are mature. They take longer to reach maturity than summer squash (3 months or more) and are best harvested once fall arrives. They can be stored for months in a cool place, and that's where they get their name "winter" squash. Avoid cooking with jack o-lantern pumpkins; carve them, and decorate with them, but eating them will leave you disappointed because they are tough and bland. If you want to cook with pumpkin choose sugar pumpkins for pies, muffins and quick breads.
Butternut squash is readily available in supermarkets. This is a more watery squash and tastes somewhat similar to sweet potatoes. It has a bulbous end and pale, creamy skin, with a choice, fine-textured, deep-orange flesh and a sweet, nutty flavor. The deeper the orange color the riper, drier and sweeter the squash will be. Butternut is perfect for oven baking. Try filling the cavity with a meat loaf mixture for a complete meal, or cut the squash into chunks and add to stews instead of potatoes. It makes a great tasting creamed soup when pureed too!
A relative newcomer to the squash family is Delicata. It's an heirloom variety also called sweet potato, peanut squash, and Bohemian squash. It was originally introduced by the Peter Henderson Company of New York City in 1894, and was popular through the 1920s. Then it fell into obscurity for about seventy-five years, possibly because of its thinner, more tender skin, which isn't suited to transportation over thousands of miles and long storage.
In general when purchasing squash, remember to allow about 1/3 pound per person. One pound of winter squash yields about 2 cups of cooked, and mashed squash. One cup of mashed squash provides 80 calories, 2 grams protein, 1 gram fat, 18 grams carbohydrates, with riboflavin, iron, and vitamins A and C.
And don't just cook with squash. Gather them up, plain and fancy, and use them as decorations to welcome fall.