Natural Foods Merchandiser

Cucurbits squash winter blues

Wrinkly. Warty. Squat.

Not exactly attributes people find alluring. But sometimes, personality overcomes. It does with squash, anyway.

Native Americans buried them with their dead to assure sustenance in the next life. Cinderella showed up for the ball in one. Today, Americans are finding more and more ways to enjoy varieties of the Cucurbita family. Winter squash can brighten up a produce section and enrich consumers' menus, with both the bright orange hues of their flesh and their nutrients. Organic squash are particularly appealing, as their conventionally grown counterparts hoard pesticides, making the Consumers Union's list of produce highest in pesticide residue.

Wild world of winter squash
Winter squash are those varieties that develop tough skins, as opposed to summer squash, such as zucchini. Winter squash tend to be drier and a bit sweeter than their summer counterparts. While they range widely in appearance, most winter squash have sweet yellow or orange flesh. They are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, potassium and fiber, and are low in sodium and calories.

As versatile as they are colorful, squash can be prepared in savory or sweet recipes. Winter squash can be baked, roasted, steamed or grilled simply with olive oil or butter. They also pair nicely with nutty, sharp cheeses such as Fontina, Pecorino and aged Gruyère, suggests cookbook author Deborah Madison, whose work includes Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, 1997). "They're fabulous with sage," she says, "or prepared with garlic and red pepper or coconut milk, ginger, lime and curry, as they are in a lot of Moroccan tangines."

In addition, she says, "Squash are so easy to roast. You can throw in apples or pears, and the roasting will take away the moisture and carmelize the sugar. Plus, leftover squash always makes a nice custard or pie filling as well as a base ingredient for wonderful soups."

Acorn squash is the most popular squash sold by Albert's Organics, the country's largest organic produce distributor. Butternut follows a close second. Madison suggests butternut for people newly venturing into the world of squash, or looking to expand their winter-squash repertoire. "Butternut's a very utilitarian squash," she says. "Because of its long neck, it's easy to peel. It has dense flesh with good flavor. It's easy to use, and when you get down past the neck to the bulb, you still have a whole other vegetable left." Another popular type of squash, the spaghetti squash, has flesh that's an anomaly in the world of squash. Its flesh is so coarse that after it's cooked, it can be pulled into long strands resembling pasta, and treated as such.

Buttercup varieties of squash include Perfection, Honey Delight, Black Forest, Red Kuri and the Japanese Kabocha. "They have a deep, deep orange flesh," Madison says. "They're just beautiful." They are some of the easiest squash to prepare because they are smaller and can be cut with a basic chef's knife.

Warty Hubbards are another squash variety that is sometimes overlooked, Madison explains. A new variety of Hubbard, called Queensland Blue, is also small enough for the home cook to manage easily.

Squash the fear
Selling squash can be challenging because of their size. "People look at a display of great big squashes and think, 'What am I going to do with that?'" says Mark Mulcahy, owner of Organic Options, a Glen Ellen, Calif.-based organic education and produce consulting company. He suggests handouts that illustrate not only a couple simple cooking methods but also how to cut the squash. Use a knife to score the squash around its circumference, making a track to cut in, he suggests. Or for easier slicing, prebake the squash for 20 minutes or so in a 350-degree oven. "But remember to puncture it a few times with a fork, or it can explode," he says.

"A rubber mallet and a cleaver are helpful," Madison says. Whack the knife into the squash, then tap the knife with the mallet. Cut next to the stem, rather than through it.

User-friendly squash
In Europe, savvy store managers avoid squash phobia by offering precut, wrapped wedges of squash instead of the whole fruit. "That way, it's less overwhelming and down to a size people can deal with," Madison says. Albert's Organics is testing a precut squash program, says Frank McCarthy, Albert's vice president of marketing. "It's hard to cut and core these items, and consumers are willing to pay for the added value of precut," he says.

"Or you can offer to cut them in the store as a service for customers," says Mulcahy. "Offer it cooked in your prepared foods department, and put a sign up in the produce display saying, 'Don't feel like cooking squash tonight? Come to the deli.'"

Still life with squash
Squash displays can be beautiful, seasonal features in your produce department. "A display of mixed squash not only looks great," Mulcahy says, "it creates impulse. Displaying a variety of types might help encourage people to buy varieties they might not have tried otherwise."

"Kabocha, acorn and butternut all in the same tray at the same price per pound make a very attractive display and offers the consumer a chance to try all three," McCarthy says.

Picking squash
Prime squash should have dull, hard rinds. Avoid squishy spots on your squash. Look for squash that feel heaviest for their size; they're the ones with the most moisture—and flavor. Stored in a cool, dry place, squash can keep for several months, a feature that makes other vegetables, which can quickly rot into horrifying incarnations, much scarier than a squash, no matter how big and warty it may be.

Shara Rutberg is freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 76, 78

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