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The Fall season is finally upon us! It’s time for blazingly beautiful leaf colors, comfy sweaters and scarves, cute boots, and your favorite toasty mug drinks. It’s also the season that delicious winter squash is finally at its prime harvesting ripeness!

As we head into the Fall season, most of us have had our fill of the summer varieties. These are generally plentiful throughout the spring and summer months, as they mature, ripen, and are harvested earlier and more regularly. Yet, it’s this time of year that all of those hardy and rich winter squash varieties are coming about!

While most of us go directly for the well-known varieties — such as butternut, spaghetti, acorn, and delicata — there are a host of less well-known varieties that are just as delicious! So, for this temperate and blustery Fall season, spend a little time getting to know your unique winter squash.

Summer vs. Winter Squash

If you’re a squash lover, then you’ve most likely already heard these terms — winter squash and summer squash — yet what’s the difference?

The most recognizable difference is skin type. Summer squash generally has soft and tender skin, “while winter squash is best when its exterior is rigid and hard.” What determines skin type? Time on the vine! If you’re a veggie gardener, then this may be a familiar concept. For others, squash sprouts from a vine and is allowed to mature based on the gardener or farmer tending it. Winter squash generally spends around “120 days growing on the plant before being harvested,” and summer squash is usually harvested after around 40 to 60 days.

Summer and winter squash are also used differently in the kitchen.

The hardier of the two — winter squash such as butternut, spaghetti, and acorn — is generally used for baking and stuffing purposes, while the soft summer squash varieties — such as yellow squash and zucchini — tend to be better sauteed, grilled, or sliced and eaten fresh on a salad.

Benefits of Nutrient-Rich Squash

Winter squash is incredibly nutrient-rich, making it a wonderful ingredient for plant-based eaters to balance out a diet. Depending on the type of winter squash, you’ll get a slightly different nutrition profile, but all winter squash have varying amounts of carbs, protein, healthy fat — especially the omega fatty acids — and dietary fiber. Plus, you’ll get a healthy dose of vitamins — A, C, E, K, B6, folate, and niacin — as well as some minerals — calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, and selenium.

1. May Help Reduce Blood Sugar

Winter squash is “fairly low in calories” while being incredibly filling. A single cup of cooked squash has around “45 [to] 90 calories” depending on the type. Plus, squash also happens to be low on the glycemic index and contains “polysaccharides, a type of indigestible fiber that can prevent blood sugar from rising after eating,” as well as protein and unsaturated oils. All of these factors put together help keep blood sugar from spiking.

2. Contain Cancer-Fighting Compounds

Much like other brightly colored veggies (such as carrots and bell peppers), squash contains “beta-carotene and lutein” which are “classified as flavonoids that may help to protect human cells from the damaging effects of oxygen.” Flavonoids have also been found to affect or inhibit “cancer cell growth,” meaning squash may reduce the chance of certain cancers.

3. Boost Heart Health

Squash is also a great plant-based food for those looking to boost heart health by maintaining healthy blood pressure. Specifically, “winter squash is rich in potassium (about 500 mg in 1 cup of cooked butternut or acorn squash), which can help to counteract the deleterious effects of sodium on blood pressure.” While research is still ongoing, squash may also have a cholesterol-lowering effect, which is yet another factor that can play into overall heart health.

Unique Squash to Try This Season

When it comes to plant-based eating, squash is a staple. Their meaty texture, vibrant colors, and rich taste are perfect to round out a plate of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Yet, there seems to be a steady trend leaning towards a few popular varieties such as butternut, spaghetti, and acorn, to name just a few. This squash-bearing season try out a few new and unique varieties to spice up and bolster that dinner plate of yours even more!

1. Cheese Pumpkins

Cheese pumpkins — also called Long Island Cheese Pumpkin or Cinderella pumpkin — are “related to butternut squash.” The cheese pumpkin is “native to the Western Hemisphere” and requires “a fair amount of hot weather for best growth.” This type of squash can be used to substitute butternut squash, as it has an incredibly similar texture and taste profile. As is similar to other pumpkin varieties, the cheese pumpkin contains a “significant source of beta carotene which contains anti-oxidants” as well as “more than [one-fourth] of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A and tons of potassium.” On top of that, pumpkins contain “zero cholesterol and hardly any source of fat.”

Try substituting cheese pumpkin for butternut squash — such as in this Butternut Squash Black Bean Enchiladas or this Butternut Squash Fritters — or pumpkins — such as in this Warm Pumpkin and Artichoke Salad.

2. Carnival Squash

Carnival squash is “actually a hybrid of the sweet dumpling and acorn squash.” It’s easily recognized and differentiated with brightly speckled orange and green skin on top of a creamy coloring and they are about the size of acorn squash. This squash has been described as “nutty and sweeter than butternut squash, but not as dry in texture as kabocha squash,” with a “buttery, almost maple syrup-like flavor.” Sounds incredible! Carnival squash is mostly carbs with a bit of protein, vitamins A and C, as well as calcium and iron.

Instead of going directly for delicata or acorn, try using carnival squash in your go-to sweet and savory squash recipes such as this Stuffed Sage Carnival Squash, this Carnival Squash Ravioli, or swap out the delicata for carnival in this Maple Cinnamon Glazed Roasted Roasted Delicata Squash recipe.

3. Turban Squash

When seeking out turban squash, you may also find it labeled as Turk’s turban or French Turban. This is yet another wonderful heirloom winter squash variety — predating 1820 — that is native to the Northeastern United States. The turban squash varies in color, but they are often “mottled in shades orange, green, and white.” The turban squash has been described as having a hazelnut taste and is similar to the buttercup, yet with a less favorable texture. Similar to other winter squash, the turban squash is primarily carbs with a small dose of protein and vitamins, in particular, A and C, as well as minerals such as calcium and iron.

As turban squash has a nutty flavor profile and an unfavorable texture, this squash is a great option for soups and stews that you might use a different type of squash such as Creamy Turmeric Butternut Squash Soup, Moroccan Roasted Acorn Squash Soup, Creamy Pumpkin Soup, or in this Roasted Squash Soup with Crispy Chickpeas.

4. Lakota Squash

The Lakota squash is recognized by its “pear-shaped” gourd that is painted with a smattering of “reddish-orange with green streaks.” This squash derived its name from its first cultivators, the “Native American tribes of the Missouri Valley, including the Lakota, from whom it gets its name.” This is one of those wonderful finds that hasn’t quite blown up in the plant-based world just yet. The Lakota squash is “prized for its fine-grained orange flesh and nutty taste in cooking and baking.” While the Lakota squash has not been broken down nutritionally just yet, as a winter squash it provides similar nutrients as its counterparts, including carbs, protein, fiber, omega fatty acids, and a slew of vitamins and minerals such as A, C, B6, B2, B3, K, folate, copper, manganese, potassium, and magnesium.

Lakota squash is super versatile in the kitchen and can be swapped out for most of your more traditional squash varieties. For beginners, try simple squash-based recipes such as this Spicy Pumpkin Chili, this Kabocha Squash and Red Lentil Soup, or these super simple Squash Fritters with Jalapeno Cream.

5. Buttercup Squash

Last, but not least on the list, is buttercup squash, not to be confused with butternut squash. Buttercup squash is an up-and-comer in the plant-based dieters’ world due to its sweet and creamy texture and taste profile. The buttercup squash is very closely related to the turban squash, yet they are different breeds. It has bright orange flesh when mature, which means you’re getting a wonderful dose of those excellent beta-carotene-derived flavonoids.

Buttercup squash can be substituted for other sweet and creamy squash varieties “such as delicata,” acorn, or butternut. Try out this swap in recipes such as this Autumn Maple Sage Acorn Squash and Butternut Squash and Black Bean Chili recipes. It’s also great for “a hearty, creamy base for soup” — such as in this Roasted Butternut Squash and Apple Soup — or even as a lower carb option for sweet potatoes — such as in this Cinnamon Turmeric Sweet Potatoes Recipe.

On top of that, as buttercup squash is such a sweet, yet savory treat you can use it in both sweet and savory recipes such as in these Buttercup Squash Spice Cakes or this Buttercup Squash and Lentil Curry recipe.

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