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Go ahead, eat the decorations

Gorgeous and delicious squash deserve a place at the harvest table.

Go ahead, eat the decorations. Piled high in a bowl or basket or stacked on a straw bale beside the front door, colorful winter squash capture the mood and the magic of the harvest season. But try them in a soup, in a casserole, in a pie, or with a pot roast. They’re more than fall decor — they are delicious.

Image: Take a look at the delicious possibilities (from top): striped and speckled sweet dumpling squash, classic butternut, dramatic dark acorn, sweetly striped delicata, and fancy turban squash. Beautiful winter squash are definitely not too pretty to eat.

The world of winter squash is big and beautiful. It goes way beyond the basic varieties such as tawny butternut and deep green acorn. Charming little delicata squash, just right for stuffing, soup, or dinner for two, have patches of bright orange or sporty green stripes on a creamy background. Kabocha squash, which keep for five months after harvest, have knobby, almost black skin and an irresistible roly-poly shape. Turban squash are orange, white, and green, and look like a cross between a pumpkin and a throw pillow. Deep green or pure white Yugoslavian finger fruit — with perhaps the strangest shape of them all—could be a mock-up for a lunar module.

Originally, these crops came from Central America, but winter squash of every stripe and size have spread around the globe to become part of the culture and cookery of North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. Traditional varieties are treasured as tasty heirlooms around the world. New hybrids retain the sweet or savory flavors of the heirlooms and add greater yields and disease resistance. All types are known for their intriguing shapes, classic harvest colors, and excellent keep-ing qualities. Mature winter squash can be stored for two to six months or even longer.

Winter squash “connect us to history, right from the soil,” says Jere Gettle, owner of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, which offers close to 50 traditional winter squash and pumpkin varieties. Gettle was among the first seed specialists to bring many rare old winter squash varieties to market. These horticultural treasures are at the heart of Baker Creek’s National Heirloom Expo, held every September in Santa Rosa, California. The festival is a celebration of seeds and seed-saving and serves as a showcase for hundreds of varieties of winter squash.

Growing winter squash requires planning. Seeds should be planted in summer, when the earth is warm. The sprawling vines will claim a lot of ground; the large leaves produce the energy the fruits need and shade them from sun. It takes all summer for the vines to grow and the crop to mature, so you’ll have plenty of time for the pleasure of peeking under the leaves to watch your squash develop their distinctive shapes and colors. But just wait until you taste them.

What's in a Name?

When it comes to working out the difference between squash and pumpkins, the food historian William Woys Weaver plays it straight. The word pumpkin is a “term of convenience,” he says, because pumpkins are really just a type of squash.

Botanically, all squash are members of the Cucurbitaceae family (along with some gourds, cucumbers, and melons). Almost 100 genera and 800 or so species are represented in this happy family. Pumpkins and squash mostly come from three species: Cucurbita maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo. Pumpkins and gourds are usually C. pepo types, but zucchini and crookneck yellow squash are also C. pepo. Most winter squash belong to the C. maxima group, but butternut squash is in the C. moschata species.

To keep it simple, the experts at Texas A&M University put it this way: You carve pumpkins, you eat squash, and you decorate with gourds.

Cooking with pumpkin and other winter squash

Winter squash of many types are generally interchange-able with pumpkin in recipes. Depending on the type, age, and texture of the squash, you may find slight differences in color, flavor, and moisture. Follow the directions below and be sure to drain well when making puree — some squash can be very watery.

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