By Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D.
The coming of fall is symbolized, for each of us, by different events and moments: the first turning of leaves, a bracing snap of cool air, rediscovering forgotten favorite sweaters, children returning to school, the palpable shortening of September and October days.
For me, one of the harbingers of autumn is the huge winter squashes at my local farmer’s market. Squash, technically a fruit, comes in a dazzling array of sizes, shapes and flavors. Butternut is one of the most popular, flavorful and nutritious.
Winter squashes, particularly butternut, are far superior to the summer squashes and zucchini in taste and nutrition because of their deeper color and higher carbohydrate and nutrient content. The most potent squashes are the more deeply colored varieties, especially pumpkin and butternut. Their color is provided by one of the most powerful nutrients: beta-carotene.
Characterized by a chubby bowling pin shape, a buff/beige color on the outside and a deep orange on the inside, the butternut is an exceptional source of beta-carotene, an antioxidant which converts to vitamin A in your body. Beta-carotene is critical for your immune system, your skin, your vision, bones, reproduction, and more. Studies show that people who eat foods high in beta-carotene and people with high blood levels of beta-carotene have a lower incidence of certain cancers. But you won’t get the same results with a beta-carotene supplement. Study after study has shown disappointing results with the supplements. So, only the food will do! But that’s a good thing for us squash lovers.
Apparently, each squash is a bustling little factory of nutrients and phytochemicals, the plant compounds with potent powers of healing. When acting synergistically in a food, these nutrients provide a more powerful health punch than the individual nutrients alone. Some of the most important nutrients in squash are antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and vitamin C, which are powerful substances believed to reduce inflammation, improve immune function and help prevent heart disease and cancers, among other benefits.
But there are other good reasons to eat butternut squash.
Butternut squash is also a great source of fiber (good for your gastrointestinal system), potassium (important for your heart and lowers blood pressure), vitamin C (a great antioxidant important for your skin, bones and healing), magnesium (important for muscle function, the heart, bones, blood clotting, and improves diabetes),manganese (important for metabolism and bone formation) and calcium (important for your heart and bones). And a big plus: it’s low in calories, only 82 calories in a cup (7 ounces) of baked squash cubes.
Interestingly, when you buy canned pumpkin pie filling, you are most likely buying butternut squash – not pumpkin squash, according to Molly Jahn, professor of plant breeding at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Jahn has developed one of the newer and most flavorful varieties of butternut squash, called “bugle.” The bugle, smaller than the usual butternut (3 –4 pounds rather than 4 – 5 pounds) has superior disease resistance and health.
”A healthier plant makes a tastier product,” says Jahn.
The average grocery store probably will not label the variety of butternut squash. So, I encourage you to buy from your local farmer or farmer’s market, where they are sure to know if their butternut squash is a bugle.
The darker the butternut, the more ripe and ripeness adds sweetness, flavor and superior nutrition. You can even eat the seeds of the butternut squash, but the seedcoat should be removed as it’s quite hard. There are known health benefits of pumpkin seeds (pepitas) and, while butternut squash seeds haven’t specifically been studied as much as pumpkin seeds, the benefits are probably similar.
Katherine’s Butternut Squash Soup with Curry and Ginger
About 6 servings
1 Small Butternut Squash
4 Cups Water
2 Tbsp Canola Oil
1 Cup Chopped Sweet Onion (about 1 medium)
1 Clove Garlic, crushed (2 cloves, if you like it spicy)
1 tsp Curry Powder (2 tsp, if you like it spicy)
1 Tbsp fresh Ginger, about 2 inches, grated (2 Tbsp, if you like it spicy)
1 Cup Chicken or Vegetable Stock
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste
Cut Butternut Squash in half, lengthwise. Scoop out seeds. Place squash face down in baking pan with 4 cups water. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until soft when pierced by a fork.
While the squash is baking, prepare the aromatic vegetables and spices: Place the oil in a large iron skillet or soup pot on medium-high. Add onions and garlic and fry until golden. Stir in curry powder, ginger, and a pinch of salt and simmer on low for a few minutes.
When the squash has cooled to the touch, pour all the water in which the squash was cooked into the skillet and stir to scrape up the bits of aromatic vegetables and spices. Scoop out the butternut squash meat, leaving the skin, and stir into the mixture in the skillet. When room temperature, puree the vegetable and spice mixture in a blender or food processor with the broth. Better yet, just insert the Cuisinart Smart Stick (my new favorite toy) into the pan, using an up-and-down motion until ingredients are pureed…. So easy, mess-free and YUMMY!
NOTE: Adjust seasonings by adding more salt, pepper or spices, if desired. Adjust consistency by adding more water or broth. Also, any similar winter squash will work well if Butternut is not available.
The entire pot of soup makes about 6 cups and is about 500 calories.
Griffin Market* Butternut Squash Soup
Serves 10 – 12
5 lbs Butternut Squash
3 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 Medium Onions, coarsely chopped
4 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
1 Pinch Allspice
2 Pears, peeled, cored and chopped
2 Qts. Chicken or Vegetable Stock
Salt and Pepper to taste
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds or Pecans for Garnish
Cut the butternut squash into pieces no more than one inch thick, discarding seeds. Place squash pieces in a roasting pan and bake at 425 degrees F for 45 minutes or until the squash is very soft. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
Pour the olive oil into a large saucepan or stockpot over medium heat. Add the onions, thyme and allspice and cook until the onions are light gold in color. Add the onions, thyme, and allspice and cook until the onions are light gold in color. Add the chopped pears and stock and raise the heat to bring the mixture to a gentle simmer.
Scoop the squash pulp from the skins and add to the pot. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Allow soup to cool for 30 minutes, remove the thyme sprigs and puree in batches in a blender on high speed until very smooth. Do not overfill the blender. Taste the soup and add salt and pepper. The amount will vary based on how much salt your stock contained. Serve immediately or cool and divide into freezer containers.
Other varieties of winter squash such as hubbard, acorn, sugar pumpkin, or delicate may be substituted. Roasting time will be shorter for the thinner walled squashes.
*Laura and Ricardo Bonino were the owners of Griffin Market in Georgetown, which is sadly now closed. They specialized in all things Italian. Ricardo and Laura met at Roberto Donna’s Galileo where Ricardo was the sommelier (hence the fine selection of wines found in Griffin) and Laura worked as a chef at Galileo’s exclusive Laboratorio (hence the delicious freshly made delicacies available, too). They now own an Italian restaurant in South Carolina!
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