Affordable, widely available, and packed with nutrition, squash has a lot going for it. Rob Firing, co-author of the forthcoming The Everyday Squash Cook (Harper, Oct.) makes the case for why we should be paying more attention to this humble family of gourds.
Move over, kale. There’s a new superfood in town.
Well, not that new. Squash, that handsome fruit most people ignore until the holidays, is actually thousands of years old, and among the first crops grown in North America. It is one of the foundational “three sisters” crops, along with beans and maize, grown in close proximity to each other by North American native societies. Beans climbed the cornstalks to reach the sun and trapped nitrogen in the soil through their roots; the large squash vine leaves shaded the soil, preventing moisture loss, their fuzzy texture also discouraging insect pests.
This might be interesting to paleo-diet enthusiasts, but why should the rest of us care? Three big reasons:
1. Squash—especially the denser, orange-fleshed winter squashes, such as butternut and hubbard—is remarkably nutritious. These squash contain up to 750% of the daily value for vitamin A in less than one cup. Squash also have relatively high levels of magnesium, necessary to absorb calcium, and a mineral many North Americans are deficient in. Winter squashes are high in fiber relative to carbohydrates, and have a low glycemic load. Among a host of other minerals and micronutrients, winter squashes contain a compound called cucurbitacin, named after the squash genus, a powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and hepaprotector that has caught the attention of cancer researchers as a potential component of cancer therapy medication.
2. Winter squash is a local crop that is inexpensive, available all year, and stores fresh at room temperature for months. There just isn’t another food around that can make this claim. This means that the taste, nutritional qualities, and look and feel of squash remain intact without having to freeze or refrigerate it. And they look handsome perched on one’s kitchen table.
3. Unlike kale, whose spike in popularity sparked recent (but short-lived) fears of a global shortage in 2014, squash (which includes pumpkin, acorn, butternut, hubbard, spaghetti squash, zucchini, and roughly 20 other commercial varieties—it’s the most varied cultivated crop on Earth), already tastes great. Its nutty, sweet flavor is known to many of us, but sadly, squash remains largely ignored outside of Thanksgiving and the winter holiday season. The truth is that squash is amazingly versatile and easy to use, once one gets the hang of things. Its taste and remarkable texture make it a natural thickener for soups and stews when pureed (and fantastic as the base for nutritious spreads, dips, and smoothies). There are easy-to-master cutting, handling, and peeling techniques that make it a snap to break down squash, which, for all of these reasons, truly deserves to be re-established as a staple food for the North American table.
So, the next time you’re at your favorite grocery store, or better yet, your favorite farmers’ market (where one can find a stunning array of beautiful squash varieties in nearly every state in the Union), give this humble crop another look. Take one home and cube it roasted into chili or salad (yes, even kale salad). Peel a butternut squash into strips and fry them into “butternut bacon.” Use pureed squash (or canned pumpkin, which holds up remarkably well in terms of both taste and nutrition) to make squash hummus. Or just cut it open and bake it on the half shell with butter and pepper—you can even eat the seeds, which make for a highly nutritious, crunchy treat when roasted with a little oil and chili spice.
Rob Firing is the senior publicity director at HarperCollinsCanada and has been marketing cookbooks for nearly 20 years. He has worked with some of the biggest names in food in Canada and around the world, including Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver, David Rocco, Laura Calder, and Jamie Kennedy. He is an avid home cook and an occasionally successful gardener. He tweets about squash and more at @TheSquashCook.
The Everyday Squash Cook: The Most Versatile & Affordable Superfood by Rob Firing, Ivy Knight, and Kerry Knight. Harper, Oct. ISBN 978-0-06-234296-6