Food of the Week: Squash
Posted on July 3, 2012
Archaeological evidence suggests squash may have been first cultivated in Mesoamerica some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, and may have been independently cultivated elsewhere at a later date. Squash was one of the “Three Sisters” planted by Native Americans. The Three Sisters were the three main native crop plants: maize (corn), beans, and squash. These were usually planted together, with the cornstalk providing support for the climbing beans, and shade for the squash. The squash vines provided ground cover to limit weeds. Weeds can be detrimental to the growing conditions of the squash. The beans provided nitrogen fixing for all three crops.
Squash generally refer to four species of the genus Cucurbita, also called marrows (mainly in British English). These species include C. maxima (hubbard squash, buttercup squash, some varieties of prize pumpkins, such as Big Max), C. mixta (cushaw squash), C. moschata(butternut squash), and C. pepo (most pumpkins, acorn squash, summer squash, zucchini). In North America, squash is loosely grouped into summer squash or winter squash, depending on whether they are harvested as immature fruit (summer squash) or mature fruit (autumn squash or winter squash). Gourds are from the same family as squashes. Well known types of squash include the pumpkin and zucchini. Giant squash are derived from Cucurbita maximaand are routinely grown to weights nearing those of giant pumpkins. For more details, refer tolist of gourds and squashes.
Summer squashes, including zucchini (also known as courgette), pattypan and yellow crookneck are harvested during the growing season, while the skin is still soft and the fruit rather small; they are eaten almost immediately and require little to no cooking. Winter squashes (such as butternut, Hubbard, buttercup, ambercup, acorn, spaghetti squash and pumpkin) are harvested at maturity, generally the end of summer, cured to further harden the skin, and stored in a cool place for eating later. They generally require longer cooking time than summer squashes. (Note: Although the term “winter squash” is used here to differentiate from “summer squash”, it is also commonly used as a synonym forCucurbita maxima.) The squash fruit is classified as a pepo by botanists, which is a special type of berry with a thick outer wall or rind formed from hypanthium tissue fused to the exocarp; the fleshy interior is composed of mesocarp and endocarp. The pepo, derived from an inferior ovary, is characteristic of the squash family (Cucurbitaceae). In culinary terms, both summer and winter squashes are generally considered as vegetables, even though pumpkin may be used for sweet dishes.
In addition to the fruit, other parts of the plant are edible. Squash seeds can be eaten directly, ground into paste, meal, “nut” butter, even a fine flour, or (particularly for hulless pumpkins) pressed for vegetable oil (e.g. bottle gourd, buffalo gourd, and pumpkin seed oils). The shoots,leaves, and tendrils can be eaten as greens. The blossoms are an important part of native American cooking, and are also used in many other parts of the world. Both the male and female blossoms can be harvested pre- or mid-flower.
As with all other members of the family, the flowers come in pollen-bearing male form, and the ovary-bearing female form, with both forms being present on the plant. Squash has historically been pollinated by the native North American squash bee Peponapis pruinosa, and related species, but this bee and its relatives have declined, probably due to pesticide sensitivity, and most commercial plantings are pollinated by European honey bees today. One hive per acre (4,000 m² per hive) is recommended by the US Department of Agriculture. Gardeners with a shortage of bees often have tohand pollinate. Giant squash grown competitively are usually hand pollinated. Flowers are kept closed before and after pollination to prevent cross pollination. Inadequately pollinated female squash flowers will usually start growing, but abort before full development. Many gardeners blame various fungal diseases for the aborted fruit, but the fix proves to be better pollination, notfungicide.
Though considered a vegetable in cooking, botanically speaking, squash is a fruit (being the receptacle for the plant’s seeds). Squash can be served fresh (in salads) and cooked (squash stuffed with meat, fried squash, baked squash). Small pattypans are good for pickling.