The term “squash” refers to all members of the gourd family – a family that includes a large number of different vegetables. Squash are generally broken down into two types: summer squash and winter squash. Summer squash include zucchini and pattypan squash, squashes where the entire thing (except for the stem) is edible. Winter squashes have hard, inedible rinds and are much heartier, so they’ll keep for longer periods of time. Winter squash are a little intimidating to many cooks because they vary wildly in appearance and seem more mysterious when it comes to cooking them.
The winter squash that is the most easily recognizable is the bright orange pumpkin that is popular for Halloween carving. Varieties like butternut, acorn and spaghetti squash are also widely available in most stores. Farmers markets tend to carry more unusual squash varieties, as well. The flavor and texture will vary from squash to squash, but, in general, they tend to have a firm flesh that needs to be roasted or steamed to make it tender. They tend to be sweet, ranging from only slightly sweet to a honeyed sweet potato-like sweetness in some varieties. It can be fun to try a variety – even ones you’ve never heard of – just to see some of the differences and to find some new favorites.
I prefer to roast squash most of the time before I serve it, as it gets a nice richness and a bit of caramelization when cooked in the oven. Roasting a large butternut squash, for instance, will make your house smell amazing. Squash can also easily be steamed in the microwave, by placing a cleaned, halved squash cut-side down on a microwave-safe plate and cooking it on high until it is tender.