The squash is the fruit of an annual garden plant belonging to the same family as the melon and cucumber and including many different varieties. Cultivated squashes are descended from wild squashes, which are believed to have originated in Central America, in the Mexico-Guatemala region. Cultivation later spread from there to North and South America.
Squashes have been consumed for over 10,000 years; the Indians cultivated them for their seeds at a time when they were not yet very fleshy. Over the centuries, improved varieties having more flesh and a fruiter taste were developed; these varieties were cultivated along with corn and beans by the Aztec, Incan and Mayan peoples of Latin America. Christopher Columbus was the first westerner to discover these fruits. Cultivation of squash began in Europe shortly after the discovery of America.
Most varieties of squash are classified as being either summer squash or winter squash, depending on their storage life. Summer squash cannot be stored for very long, whereas winter squash will keep for a good part of the winter under adequate storage conditions. Today, most squashes and pumpkins are produced in China, Romania, Egypt, Argentina, Turkey, Italy and Japan.
Summer squashes are picked when still very young, from 2 to 7 days after flowering. Both their skin and seeds are tender enough to be edible. The zucchini is probably the best-known member of the summer squash family. Originally from Italy, it is also known as courgette. French and Italian cooking make use of zucchini flowers, which can be stuffed or deep-fried in batter.
Winter squashes are harvested when fully ripe. They vary in shape, size, color and flavor, depending on the variety. The orange-colored flesh is drier, more fibrous and much sweeter than that of summer squash, and it becomes creamy when cooked. Like melons, winter squashes have a hollow inner cavity containing hard, fully developed seeds; these seeds can be washed, dried, and roasted, either salted or plain, and make a delicious and nourishing snack. Pumpkin seeds are commonly used this way. The large family of winter squashes includes well-known varieties: the butternut squash, the Hubbard squash, the buttercup squash and the acorn squash.
Little is known about the history of spaghetti squash. Unlike that of other squash, the flesh of the spaghetti squash can be separated into spaghetti-like strands after it is cooked. It can thus be topped with a variety of pasta sauces or used in salads once chilled.
The pumpkin is very similar to the autumn squash, with which it is often confused. Pumpkins are more commonly used in North America, while the autumn squash is more popular in Europe. Both of these varieties are quite large and can be distinguished only by their peduncle; the pumpkin’s is hard and fibrous, with no swelling at the stern end, while that of the autumn squash is soft, spongy, cylindrical, and flared at the point of attachment. The flesh of these squashes is slightly thicker, and they have a more pronounced flavor than the other varieties of winter squash. They are more commonly used in soups, desserts, and jams.
Although most often purchased for use as a Halloween decoration, pumpkins can also be substituted for or combined with other squashes in most recipes. Their seeds are said to be diuretic and to help in the treatment of urinary infections and prostate disorders. They also have a reputation for being an aphrodisiac.