The origin of squashes is normally given as Latin America. However, they were also found in Asia and Africa more than 10,000 years ago, as numerous archeological excavations have shown.
They also existed in Europe, at least in antiquity, because Apicius describes several recipes using cucurbitas in his De re coquinaria cookery book. Cucurbitas is mentioned again in the time of Charlemagne, who recommended its cultivation. Cucurbitas was transformed into the Medieval French word coucourde: in his Mesnagier de Paris, Taillevent uses it in soup with spices.
From the traces found in ruins of ancient settlements in Central America, squashes were domesticated between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, depending on the species, and this would have taken place independently in a number of places. Squashes are therefore one of the first plants in the world to have been cultivated.
They were first grown for their nourishing seeds: at the time they contained little flesh and this was often bitter, sometimes toxic. The dried fruit was used to make different highly decorated receptacles, musical instruments, and objects for religious rituals.
Different fleshier and fruitier varieties were later developed by the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans. These species subsequently spread to the Caribbean and Florida.
Christopher Columbus took squash seeds to Europe. Growing this fruit-vegetable was easy, and it developed quickly over the centuries. Hybridization would produce an incredible number of varieties, which would be used to feed both animals and humans.
The Cucurbita pepo and Cucurbita maxima varieties of pumpkin are often mistaken for each other as the result of their being turned into a carriage in Cinderella: Charles Perrault's tale described the former, while Disney's animated picture featured the latter. Halloween is typified by either variety, simply referred to as a pumpkin.
Dull skin, a sign that the squash has reached full ripeness; if shiny, it is not completely ripe and is therefore less tasty. A good squash is heavy and firm to the touch, without knocks, cracks, or bruises. It should have part of its stalk intact, as this will slow down the drying process.
Firm, shiny, without blemishes, bruises or cracks.
Pattypan squash with tough skin is too ripe: it should be discarded.
Squash is sold fresh; the larger varieties are sold by the piece and the smaller ones by weight.
Pumpkins can be found diced or in paste or puree, or steamed and frozen.
The red kuri squash (sometimes organic) is available diced and frozen.
Mini pattypan squash can be found pickled.
Winter squash first needs to be peeled and the seeds removed, as well as the threads found in the flesh.
It can then be steamed, roasted, or stewed in very little water or in milk.
It can be made into puree, soup, a gratin dish, quiche, pie (such as the famous US dish pumpkin pie). It can be fried, combined with other vegetables, form part of the filling for ravioli, and used in lasagna.
It can be dried in the oven in flakes or thin slices.
After cleaning and drying, the seeds can be roasted in the oven or in a pan, then seasoned and spiced. They can be eaten as they are or used as a condiment, often substituting pine nuts.
In the Japanese dish kabocha nimono (simmered pumpkin), diced pumpkin is simmered with a little sugar, soy sauce, and mirin. Pumpkin cheesecake is a classic American dessert.
There are myriad ways of preparing zucchini.
Pattypan squash can be stuffed, and is often made into soup, pie filling, or in a gratin.
Winter squash can be stored from 1 week–6 months, depending on the variety, averaging 2–3 months, at 10–15ºC, away from light. Cold causes them to deteriorate, while heat turns their flesh floury.
Peeled and diced, they can be kept in the refrigerator or cool room. A slice of pumpkin wrapped in plastic can keep for 2 or 3 days in the refrigerator.
More fragile summer squash can be kept in the refrigerator or cool room for 1 week at the longest, without stacking or being placed in a box.
All squashes are low in calories and high in different antioxidant carotenoids, molecules that can protect against cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and cell aging: the more orange the flesh, the greater the carotenoid content.
They also contain minerals and B vitamins.
- Winter Squash
These are always harvested when fully ripe. In each of the main varieties, there are a number of sub-varieties.
. Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo): the most famous kind of squash, particularly popular in English-speaking countries and often mistaken for Cucurbita maxima. Round; very tough orange skin with hard, fibrous stalk; orange and somewhat stringy flesh. Average weight: 5 kg.
. Butternut squash 20–30 cm long with a more rounded base, with an elongated pear shape. Cream-colored and smooth skin. Very soft, orange flesh. Weight: 1.5–2 kg.
. Hubbard squash: oval or round; very hard, veined skin that can be dark green, gray-blue, or orangey-red in color. Relatively orange flesh that is quite dry. Average weight: 5 kg.
. Turban squash: 15–20 cm in diameter: thin, hard and indented skin, green striped with different colors or spotted; soft and sweet orangey-yellow flesh with a slight hazelnut flavor. Average weight: 1.5 kg
. Buttercup squash: round, sometimes with a protuberance on the top; smooth or ribbed, thick skin with green or orange tone; thick, soft orange flesh. Average weight: 1.5 kg.
. Acorn squash: round and ribbed; smooth skin that is not very tough, darkish green or cream in color; orange or cream-colored flesh. Weight: 700 g–1.5 kg.
. Delicata squash: elongated; cream-colored skin with dark green stripes; sweet orange flesh. Weight: 1–2 kg.
. Spaghetti squash: elongated; orange or yellow skin; orange or yellow, sweet and creamy flesh. Average weight: 1–2 kg.
. Pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima): round but somewhat flattened; delicate stalk; very tough, orange to dark-green skin; thick and sweet orange flesh that is more flavorful than that of Cucurbita pepo. Average weight: 5 kg.
. Red kuri or Orange Hokkaido squash: shaped like a spinning top; bright red to pink, green, or bronze skin; very tasty flesh with a chestnut-like flavor. Weight: 2–3 kg.
. Uchiki Kuri: round; smooth orange skin; fine, creamy yellow flesh with a walnut flavor. Weight: 1.5–2 kg.
- Summer Squash
. Zucchini: many varieties; elongated, somewhat long and straight; light green to very dark green skin; firm, aqueous, and rather insipid flesh.
. Yellow crookneck squash: elongated with a rounded base; yellow or green skin covered with small bumps; yellow flesh with a slight hazelnut flavor. 20–25 cm in length:
. Marrow squash: elongated, resembling a zucchini; green skin with white stripes; firm flesh. 30 cm.
. Pattypan squash: round and flat with a scalloped rim, largish bumps; 8–10 cm in diameter; pale green, white, or yellow skin; firm white flesh that is slightly sweet and tastes a little of artichoke. 1–2 kg.
Discover top chefs recipes, with step-by-step illustrations and videos
Learn tips and tricks from the greatest chefs
Master techniques at home with interactive videos