Winter squashes not only bring to mind Autumn leaves and pumpkin pies but, are highly versatile vegetables. They can become soup, stew, bread, pies, cakes, cookies, side dishes and main courses.

When I was younger and less versed in the art of vegetables, I thought they were merely a nice fall decoration. However, I have been educated since moving to the Umpqua valley that these odd shaped, brightly colored squashes have a very important place on our plates.

There are several different varieties of winter squash — such as the most popular and recognizable pumpkin — along with butternut, acorn, spaghetti, Hubbard, kabocha, buttercup and several others. Each has its own unique flavor and uses.

The lovely thing about the winter squashes is that most of them can be used with sweet or savory meals. The acorn squash is amazing stuffed with sausage, sage and rice or sprinkled with honey and cinnamon with a drizzle of butter. We love butternut squash, roasted with garlic and butter or baked in halves with cinnamon, nutmeg and butter.

Nutritionally, winter squash is a champ, being high in vitamins A and C, a great source of fiber that may promote heart and digestive health, and high in phytonutrients with their bold yellow and orange colors. Winter squashes also have excellent amounts of potassium, folate and several B vitamins.

Winter squash can be stored for longer periods of time in cool storage without losing much nutritional value, so if you have your own cool storage you can stock up and use them all winter.

The seeds of winter squash can be dried or roasted and eaten, too. These make the perfect snack that can be eaten alone, added to salads, or maybe to a trail mix that is loaded with nutrition.

Shelled, soaked and dried pumpkin seeds are my favorite snack when I am traveling since they are easy to store and satiate hunger quickly. The seeds are an excellent source of zinc, magnesium, protein and healthy fat.

Winter squash is easy to grow even for someone like me who is still learning to garden. You can also pick from your local farm or the grocery stores have them year-round. Picking winter squash from your local u-pick farms can be a lot of fun and memory-making for the whole family.

Choose winter squash with a dull look to the skin and a deep, robust color. They should feel heavy and have no cuts or bruises on the skin.

Now, for me, preparing the squash to cook is the hardest part and since I am a lazy cook, I absolutely do not want to invest in a difficult vegetable, so I did some research to make it a bit simpler. Most recipes call for cutting the ends off, possibly peeling, and halving the squash before cooking.

This may be a cinch if you’re a body builder with a sharp samurai sword — which I, however, am not. I discovered that you could bake the squash first until it was soft enough to cut and then prepare in a recipe. I begin by washing the squash thoroughly. Then I place it on a baking sheet, pierce the skin with a knife several times, and bake for approximately an hour at 400°F, depending on the size. Then, I take the squash out and cool it completely.

I have gotten impatient and tried to handle the squash hot, but it’s really not worth it. I then cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Now, it is ready to use in your favorite recipe. This works especially well for spaghetti and butternut squash. I even get out of having to peel the squash!

If you have never given winter squash a second look, I encourage you to give it a try, not only for it’s delicious and varied flavors, but it’s many healthful benefits.

Cheryl Cole is a holistic nutritionist and graduate of Hawthorn University with a love for fresh, local, organic foods. Find her on Facebook and lazynutrition.net.

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