Squash is one of the oldest cultivated crops in the western hemisphere, dating back to 8,000 B.C. Mexico. An important staple of nearly every Native american tribe, squash was part of the Iroquois’ “three sisters” of plantings, along with maize and beans. Squash seeds were buried with the dead to nourish their journey in the afterlife and were believed to increase fertility. The earliest squash had sparse flesh and was bitter and unpalatable, and cultivated only for its seeds. As cultivation spread, better tasting varieties developed.
Winter squash are part of the Cucurbitaceae family, also known as the gourd family, along with melons, cucumbers and luffas (or loofah), the spa sponge. Characterized by hard shells, hollow inner, seed-filled cavities and sweet flesh, the many varieties include acorn, banana, turban, butternut, Hubbard, spaghetti and Kabocha. Winter squash are harvested at a more mature age than their summer cousins. The hard shell lends longer storage capacity, and the vibrant yellow and orange flesh is richer in vitamins. Winter squash are an important source of carotenoids, a group of antioxidants that includes alpha and beta carotenes; just one cup provides more than double the daily requirement of vitamin a, important for eye health.
Carotenoids have received much attention for their anticancer potential. Beta carotene was found to inhibit the spreading and growth of leukemia cells, according to a study published in the May 18, 2011 archives of Biochem-
istry and Biophysics. Higher levels of alpha carotene in the blood were linked with lower risk of death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer, according to an article in the March 28, 2011 issue of archives of Internal Medicine. The study supports increased consumption of fruits and vegetables as a means of preventing premature death.
Slice into winter squash and the deeply colored flesh will brighten the gray of winter. The most flavorful squash will have a firm, smooth rind that allows most varieties to be stored for one week up to six months, if kept out of direct light and extreme temperatures. Once cut, store squash covered, in the refrigerator, for one to two days. Cooked winter squash, whether steamed or baked, needs little more than a dash of seasoning to enhance flavor. Try it pureed in soups, stuffed with sweet and savory ingredients, or roast the seeds for a crunchy treat.