CORVALLIS - Not all vegetables are created equal - at least, when in comes to nutrition.
Some vegetables can be considered "nutritional superstars," according to Carolyn Raab, a foods and nutrition specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.
They are packed with nutrients that promote good health. Winter squash is one of those superstars, loaded with antioxidants, such as beta carotene (vitamin A), which help prevent chronic illnesses including heart disease and cancer.
The new crop of winter squash is now in local markets. There are the old favorites like acorn, butternut, Hubbard and pumpkins, as well as newer varieties like buttercup, sweet dumpling and sweet mama. All are economical, healthy food choices.
Because of their tough skins, squash generally keep well. Most varieties can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to three months. Purchase squash and pumpkins that are heavy for their size. Skins should be hard and tough with no cracks, cuts or moldy spots. Squash should be washed thoroughly with cool, running water before cutting to remove bacteria or other contaminants that might be on the skin.
Winter squash can be prepared by several methods:
Wash, cut and bake several pans of squash at one time, freezing extra in one-cup portions for use in pies, breads or muffins. Since squash can be baked at a range of temperatures, from 325 to 425 degrees, a whole dinner may be baked at the same time to save energy.
Place pieces of squash cut side down in a shallow baking pan. Pour in about half an inch of water and cover with foil. Bake in a 350-degree oven until tender.
Microwave only a pound or two of squash at a time. Small squash may be cooked whole, uncovered, if pierced several times with a knife. Turn over halfway through the cooking time. Larger squash may be cut into pieces. Pierce the pieces and place them in a baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and leave an air vent for steam to escape. Microwave on high for 5-7 minutes per pound, or until soft. Let stand until cool enough to handle.
You can put squash on the holiday menu by serving squash or pumpkin soup, or baking pumpkin bread or pies. You can also fill steamed rounds of acorn squash with cranberry sauce, or top mashed squash with browned butter and hazelnuts.
A new OSU Extension information and recipe card on winter squash includes time- and money-saving tips. Single copies are available without charge by sending a postcard to "Oregon's Healthy Harvest: Winter Squash," OSU, 161 Milam Hall, Corvallis, OR 97331-5106, or call 541-737-1014.