Sometimes as runners we focus so much on getting our carbs from grains, we forget about the importance of filling at least half our plate with fruits and vegetables! Vegetables are an important source of complex carbs that are packed with vitamins and minerals. It can seem especially tricky to fill up on veggies at this time of year when you’d rather eat something warm and comforting than a salad for lunch or dinner.
One of my favorite vegetables at this time of year (technically fruit, but commonly thought of as vegetables) are winter squashes. Winter squashes can be intimidating to cook. That hard outer shell that seems nearly impossible to peel and the tough center (when raw) is enough to send many running in the other direction. But, the nutrient dense, sweet orange goodness waiting for you underneath that colorful shell is worth the effort! With a few simple tricks, you’ll be an expert at cooking squash in no time.
Winter squash comes in many shapes and sizes, with each variety offering a slightly different flavor profile and texture. Some can be eaten with the skin on (delacata, buttercup, and acorn) and others need to be pealed (butternut and sugar pumpkin). For a guide to more squash varieties than you probably knew existed along with tips on purchasing and storing, read more here.
Although they often feel decadent, squash are actually a low-calorie, nutrient filled vegetable. 1 cup of squash provides 750mg of muscle cramp fighting potassium (1.5x that of a banana!), 3-6g of belly filling fiber (depending on the variety), and 200-400% of your daily dose of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene). Not to mention a healthy dose of vitamins C and B6, and magnesium along with many other phytonutrients (plant compounds with possible health benefits). All for just around 100 calories!
Butternut is the easiest to prepare, so if you’re new to squash, start here! Peel the outside, cut in half, scoop out the seeds, then cut into 1-inch pieces for roasting (see below).
Squash with ridges and harder outer shells can be much more difficult and time-consuming to peel. So, I leave the skin on while roasting. The key to cutting a hard squash is a large chef’s knife like the one pictured to the left. Just cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and place face down on a greased baking sheet for roasting. Once it’s cooked, you can scoop out the flesh and cut in to cubes. Or, if you can eat the skin, cut into smaller slices before or after baking, leaving the skin on.
Note: if you want to use the seeds – rinse and pat dry (with paper towel), then spread out on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake at 300 for about 45 minutes. For an extra kick, sprinkle some cayenne pepper on them before baking!
One of the best parts of winter squash is its versatility; prepare sweet and savory varieties to please many different taste preferences! I like to roast a bunch of squash on Sundays and have it for the week for different meals.
Sweet: brush with olive or canola oil (about 1 tbsp will be enough for a medium squash), then sprinkle 1 tbsp brown sugar or maple syrup and cinnamon over the squash. Roast on 400 for 20-30 minutes (until soft, but still slightly firm).
Savory: brush with olive or canola oil, then sprinkle salt (about 1 tsp), fresh ground pepper, and dried herbs of your choice (I like rosemary and sage).
Sweet and savory: olive oil, brown sugar, salt, and sage.
Straight out of the oven, any of these squashes are fantastic on their own for a snack, as a salad topper, or as a great side to fish, meat, or chicken. Here are a few other ways I like to enjoy squash:
Winter salad: 2 cups mixed greens, ½ cup roasted and cubed butternut squash, ¼ pear, sliced thin, 1 tbsp gorgonzola cheese, 1 tbsp chopped walnuts. Toss with balsamic vinaigrette. For added protein, top with ½ cup cannellini beans. Pumpkin and mushroom risotto
Squash and Beet couscous: 1 cup cooked Israeli couscous, ½ cup cubed roasted squash, ½ cup cubed, roasted beets (roast them as you do the squash – they are in season and very sweet at this time of year!), 1 tbsp golden raisins, 1 tbsp dried cherries, 1 tbsp chopped pecans. Toss with 1 tsp olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.
Squash pizza: Brush whole-wheat pizza crush with olive oil and chopped garlic. Top with roasted squash, crumbled goat cheese, caramelized onions, and fresh arugula. For directions to caramelize onions, go here.
Squash soups: Nearly any type of winter squash makes a great, hearty soup. Butternut, buttercup, and pumpkin are the most commonly used, but try out different varieties. Check out some sweet and savory recipes ideas on Cooking Light and Eating Well.
Did you know that winter squash has more potassium than a banana? What’s your favorite winter squash? How do you cook it?
(Sarah is a 2nd year grad student pursuing her MS in Nutrition Communication at Tufts University Friedman School in Boston. She is also completing the requirements to become a registered dietitian and will begin her dietetic internship in 2012. Sarah is a certified spin instructor and an avid runner and regularly participates in road races from 5k to a 1/2 marathons. Follow her on Twitter @SpinnerSarah and at her personal blog Food and Fitness Friend .)