Unsung squash: Nature's versatile superfood profiled in new cookbook

TORONTO - Move over, kale and quinoa. Squash is stepping up to the head of the superfood queue — that is, if the authors of a new book have any say in the matter.

Superfood refers to a natural food that surpasses its nutritional target. "Squash is certainly one of those because it's off the scale in terms of vitamin A and has unique compounds that are beneficial to us when we eat it," says Rob Firing, co-author of "The Everyday Squash Cook: The Most Versatile and Affordable Superfood" (Collins), slated to be in stores Wednesday.

But the colourful food is often relegated to a side dish for holiday dinners and given short shrift throughout the rest of the year, Firing laments, which he calls an oversight given its versatility, flavour, nutritional value and its ability to be stored fresh for a long time.

"It's grown here a lot and like kale and quinoa was probably ignored because it was intimidating," he says. I thought my job should be to make it less intimidating and more welcoming to Canadians because it's such a local heritage crop and so good for you and already tasty.

"I mean, you have to make kale tasty. Raw kale is something you really have to work on, but squash already has this fantastic taste and it's such a great medium to work with with other foods."

Firing has combined his love of food and publishing in his role as senior director, publicity and communications at HarperCollins Canada. He worked with Ivy and Kerry Knight, a husband-and-wife team of food writers and cooks who he felt could employ a creative approach to working with a single ingredient.

Though there are dozens of types of squash, the authors have focused on nine of the most common, with a concentration on winter squash — generally larger and thicker skinned, such as acorn, butternut, hubbard, pumpkin, spaghetti and kabocha — along with summer squashes like zucchini/crookneck, pattypans and chayote.

The darker the flesh, generally the sweeter and denser the fruit (culinarily, they're known as a vegetable) and also the higher amounts of vitamin A. In fact, squash can contain almost five times the recommended daily dose of vitamin A, which boosts the immune system and maintains vision.

Squash is also high in vitamin B6, potassium, manganese and magnesium. Most squash also contains cucurbitacins, compounds with anti-inflammatory and liver-protecting qualities.

Squash can be used in soups, pastas, stews and sauces as well as in muffins, quickbreads and brownies. "If you're tired of using cornstarch or flour to make a roux as I have become, squash is a very interesting alternative," says Firing, an avid home cook who confesses he's turned into "a squash nerd" over the last few years.

The authors have included some creative ways with squash, including in smoothies, salads and desserts.

There's even a recipe for butternut squash "bacon," which is created by peeling strips away from the neck of the squash and frying them very quickly "until it's almost a chip that's soft in the middle," Firing says.

"(Add) a little bit of salt and it's delicious. It looks like a pumpkin-y curly piece of bacon."

Summer squash such as zucchini is delicious in sauces, sauteed, sliced and grilled and served on pizza.

Cut-up squash is available fresh and frozen in the supermarket, but Firing says it's easy to prepare your own. An illustrated section near the beginning of "The Everyday Squash Cook" provides step-by-step instructions. It's important to use a sharp knife and hold it properly.

Winter squash can be stored on the counter at room temperature for several months rather than the fridge, which shortens its shelf life as moisture can condense on the surface and cause rotting.

During their recipe development and testing, the Knights discovered that canned pumpkin was an easy ingredient to use.

"In fact, I would say in terms of a canned vegetable it's a really superior product partly because the nutritional content is largely safeguarded in the process and when you're cooking and pureeing squash you're really after the same sort of thing that canned pumpkin can offer you," says Firing. "There's nothing else in it — it's just canned pumpkin."

Pumpkin lends itself well to warm, rich spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg and can often be found at this time of year in lattes, candies and pies.

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