Squash: not just a centerpiece

It's squash time in Minnesota but don't forget about the many other squash varieties that can serve as tasty treats as well as decorative centerpieces.

Before tackling that recipe book, it helps to know your squash categories.

"Winter squash" include pumpkins, butternut squash, buttercup squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash. Named because they ripen in fall and can keep into the winter, these squash are generally more nutritious and longer-lasting than their summer counterparts.

"Summer squash" include July and August garden favorites such as zucchini, pattypan squash and yellow crookneck squash. They have thinner, edible skins and higher water content, so don't keep long.

Winter squash comes in all different shapes, sizes and colors: round, elongated, big, small, and colored with brilliant yellows, greens and oranges. And though you'll find a wide selection, always choose a firm, unblemished squash to take home.

The winter squash harvest season generally begins in mid-August, and many winter squash are currently ripe and ready for sale at local stores and markets.

Extension professor at the University of Minnesota, Terry Nennich, said the top three winter squashes: buttercup, acorn and butternut, make up about 80 to 85 percent of squash sales in Minnesota. But specialty squashes like della cotta, sweet dumpling and hubbard are sought-after as well.

"Minnesota grows some really great-quality squash," Nennich said.

Cooking squash
Gina Nelson, who has been growing squash on her family farm in Big Lake, Minn. for the past 24 years, said there are many uses for these unique vegetables.

Nelson said after cutting a squash in half, it takes about an hour to bake it to perfection in the oven. Microwaving it is also an option -- as long as you remember one important detail:

"You've got to poke it, or it will explode," Nelson said.

After stabbing the squash four or five times with a knife or large fork, pop it in the microwave for seven to 10 minutes, then turn it over for another seven to 10.

Nelson added that the microwave is not only a speedy alternative for a busy family, it's easier and safer, especially for the elderly. Because the hard coverings of winter squash can be difficult to cut when they're uncooked, the pierce/microwave approach saves on musclepower and slipped knife blades.

There are many other ways to cook squash, including boiling, steaming or frying it, and there are also plenty of ways to eat it: in soups, pies or the old favorite, plain with a little butter and brown sugar.

Special squash dishes
If you're looking to try something new, consider substituting different types of squash as filling for pumpkin pie. Nelson said other winter squash varieties often have a smoother, less stringy texture than pumpkins, yet will still provide that good old pumpkin pie taste.

Mary Jo, a Maplewood resident who heads to the Aldrich Arena Farmers Market at 1850 White Bear Avenue in Maplewood each Wednesday, said her Oct. 6 trip had a special purpose: squash soup for a friend.

Her friend, she said, requests the delicious dish every time she comes to visit from Red Lake, Minn.

To make the soup, Mary Jo first bakes butternut squash, scoops out the flesh and cooks it with chicken broth and cayenne pepper.

And her secret? Adding a little bit of cream cheese.

Nelson said most winter squash varieties can last from four to six weeks in a cool and dry place, such as the basement, and that many people simply store them in a cool spot in their garages.

However, winter squash can start to break down and rot if stored in temperatures below 40 degrees, Nennich said, and ideal storage temperature is between 45 and 50 degrees. If stored properly, some squash can last into January.

Nennich added that consumers should be careful when handling and transporting squash, since it bruises easily.

Where to find it
Squash lovers can head to one of Minnesota's local farmers markets, including the Aldrich Arena Farmers Market.

Several squash growers bring their ripened varieties to the market each Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon, and will continue to do so until the market closes for the year on Oct. 27.

Here you'll find squash and other fresh fruits and vegetables from farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin, many of which are family-owned and operated.

Jason Walker is a third-generation squash grower from Wisconsin who brings squash, melons and sweet corn to the Aldrich Arena Farmers Market each week.

Walker said he usually starts bringing winter squash to the market in early September.

He added that he also brings squash to other farmers markets in the St. Paul area -- and there are many.

Nennich said in the past five or six years, the number of farmers markets in Minnesota has roughly tripled, largely due to the rising local-food movement.

"People want to know where their food is coming from," Nennich said.

Through the month of October, head to:

• Woodbury Farmers Market, 2175 Radio Drive, Sundays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.,

• Roseville Farmers Market at the Church of Corpus Christi, 2131 Fairview Ave., Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to noon

• Oakdale Farmers Market at Guardian Angels Church, 8260 Fourth St. N., Oakdale, Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m.

• West St. Paul Farmers Market at Signal Hills Mall, 1201 S. Robert St., Fridays from 8 a.m. to noon

• Or one of the many others farmers markets in the area.

For a complete list of all the St. Paul area farmers markets and their schedules, go to www.stpaulfarmersmarket.com/locations.

Alex Holmquist can be reached at aholmquist@lillienews.com or (651)748-7824.