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Wilburn: Winter squash liven up this seasons table
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I love fresh vegetables, but they are not as plentiful or as affordable in winter. But thank goodness for winter squash.

Growing up we usually ate butternut or acorn squash. There are many more varieties now with a wide range of flavors and textures. Winter squash do not look the same either. Their tough outer shells can be smooth or bumpy, thin or thick and rock hard with a wide array of colors. Winter squash can add to the nutritional value of any meal, but many people do not purchase them because they don’t know how to prepare them.

Some of the more common winter squash include acorn, buttercup, butternut, calabaza, delicate, Hubbard, spaghetti, sweet dumpling and Turk’s Turban. When purchasing, look for a squash that is firm and intact. It should also be heavy for its size with a dull-colored skin. This indicates the squash was picked when it was fully ripe. A shiny winter squash can be an indicator that it will have less flavor.

To cook winter squash, cut the squash in two and place it cut side down on a shallow baking dish and bake in a 350 F oven for 30 minutes or longer. (Larger squash take longer.) It is done when you can easily pierce it with a fork. After it cools, spoon out the soft flesh and mash with a fork or use a blender or food processor to make a squash puree.

Small winter squash can be pierced several times with a fork or other sharp instrument and baked whole. Piercing prevents the shell from bursting during cooking. Place the pierced squash in an oven-safe dish and bake at 325 F for 1« to 2 hours. Test for doneness by squeezing the shell. When it gives with pressure, it is done.

Any type of mashed or pureed squash can be used in the place of canned pumpkin in soups, pies, cookies or quick breads. Chunks of squash can be added to soups, stews and casseroles. Winter squash can also be mixed with onions, garlic and herbs as a side dish or mixed with other vegetables such as corn, tomatoes and bell pepper for a tasty dish.

Get creative! Ask family or friends to share some of their favorite winter squash recipes. One of my favorite recipes is my mom’s butternut squash casserole. Flip through some of your cookbooks and try something that catches your eye and taste buds. The next time you are at the grocery store take home a "new" variety of squash and give it a try. You might be pleasantly and deliciously surprised.

Winter squash are a good source of potassium and vitamin A. They also contain vitamin C, folic acid, pantothenic acid and copper. Winter squash is also a source of potassium, niacin, iron and beta carotene. As a general rule, the deeper the orange color the higher the beta carotene content. Beta carotene is converted to vitamin A in the body.

Vitamin A is essential for healthy skin, vision, bone development and maintenance as well as many other functions. One-half cup of cooked squash provides only 40 calories.

Go ahead and buy a winter squash next time you hit the produce aisle. It will last for one and a half to three months on your kitchen counter as you decide how you would like to prepare it. If you store it in a cool place away from light, it can last from four to six months. Check your squash regularly so that it does not spoil.

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension Service. Contact: 770-535-8290.

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