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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2007 09:38 am

Enjoy winter squash

Most varieties will benefit from a brief curing process

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Untitled Document The fruits of summer may be nearing their end for the year, but winter squash, which comes in hundreds of varieties and a plethora of sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors, is a tasty, nutritious fall treat. Butternut squash is one of the most popular winter squash. This long, tan, pear-shaped squash has a thin rind that’s easy to cut away or peel off with the use of a vegetable peeler. Acorn squash, a small fruit, is shaped like its namesake and comes in a variety of skin colors, including dark green, gold, and white. The cooked flesh of spaghetti squash resembles thin strands of pasta, hence its name — and you can use the flesh as a low-calorie, low-starch pasta substitute. The delicate, Hubbard, and buttercup varieties are also popular. Unlike summer squash, which are harvested in the immature stage, winter squash are harvested when the fruit is mature. The rind of a mature fruit is hard and cannot be punctured with a fingernail. It should have a dull, dry appearance that is free of cracks or soft spots. (It’s important to avoid injuring the rind.) Cut fruit from the vine, leaving a 2- to 3-inch stem — but avoid handling fruit by the stem alone, because the weight of the fruit can cause the stem to break.
Winter squash, must be harvested before a heavy frost, generally in September or October. A light frost will kill the vines but not harm the fruit. Most winter squash, with the exception of the acorn and delicata varieties, will benefit from a curing process. Simply place your squash in an area with a temperature between 70 and 80 degrees for 10 days. Stored properly, winter squash have a long shelf life. Optimum storage conditions for most winter squash consist of a cool, dark location (50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 50 to 75 percent relative humidity) with good air circulation. If possible, store your squash in a single layer and keep them from touching one another. Except for Hubbard squash, all winter squash should be stored with the stems attached. Properly cured and stored, squash should remain in good condition for several months. Acorn squash can be stored for as long as two months, butternut for three, and Hubbard for as long as six. Winter squash must be cooked before being eaten. Most can be baked, boiled, or steamed. The tough rind and hard seeds are not edible. The rind is a challenge for most cooks to cut.
Winter squash are often eaten as a side dish flavored with salt and butter, cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, or basil; they are also sweetened with brown sugar, maple syrup, or honey. Winter squash can also be incorporated into soups, stews, casseroles, pies, muffins, and cakes.
If you didn’t have the opportunity to grow your own winter squash this year, be sure to visit the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market. Most growers offer several varieties. · Want to learn what’s eating your favorite vegetable before you get to it? University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Jim Schuster will help you with common vegetable insect pest identification. Schuster will provide information on 15 critters — insects, slugs, and wildlife — that are often found attacking vegetable gardens and discuss both organic and inorganic controls. The program will be offered at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 11, and again on at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Sangamon-Menard Extension offices, on the Illinois State Fairgrounds. To reserve a seat and a packet of information, call 217-782-4617. The cost is $2 per session.
  
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon Menard Unit. Contact her at www.extension.uiuc.edu/Sangamon. 
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