“Squash would be great for you to eat.” It’s a common recommendation that I make. And for good reason. Pumpkins and winter squash are the perfect food for strengthening your Spleen, Stomach and the core of your body. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

A Little History

Native to North America, we’ve been playing with pumpkins and winter squash for nearly 7,000 years. For the Indigenous people of North America squash was on part of the “Three Sisters” along with lentils/legumes and corn to make up the base of their diet. The word pumpkin was actually first used by American colonists. It’s a bit of a word play from British term ‘pumpion’ which originated from the Greek word “pepon” meaning “large melon,” a term the Greeks applied to large round objects.

Pumpkins, squash and gourds are members of the enormously diverse Cucurbitaceae family, which contains more than 100 genera and over 700 species. They have been providing mankind with food and utilitarian objects since before recorded history. Names differ throughout the world, but in the United States, any round, orange squash used for pies or jack-o-lanterns is likely to be called a pumpkin. However, the term “pumpkin” really has no botanical meaning, as they are actually all squash.

Squash are divided into two categories: tender or summer squash, and hard-skinned or winter squash. Examples of summer squash include zucchini, pattypan, straightneck, and crookneck squash. Winter squash include small to medium hard-skinned squash such as the acorn, small hubbard, miniature pumpkin and spaghetti types, as well as the large hard-skinned types, including banana, butternuts, cheese pumpkins, cushaws, and large hubbards, among others.

During the late 1800’s pumpkins and squash were viewed as by the aristocracy as “poor people’s food.” Something less than favorable for those who could afford to dine regularly on meats and rich, sweet foods. Even today, squashes and pumpkins aren’t a regular part of the American’s diets, except for that special time around Halloween and Thanksgiving–unfortunate, as it is a wonderfully nutritious and healing food.

Pumpkins and winter squashes are tenacious plants, as anyone who has ever tossed the seeds in a compost heap knows. The vines will eagerly spread, produce blossoms (that are edible) and put on heavy fruit given the right conditions. They all have a tough outer rind or peel making them great for storage through the long winter months into spring and even early summer if stored correctly.

Popular varieties of winter squash include: Acorn, Alladin, Banana, Blue Ballet, Blue Hubbard, Black Forest, Butternut, Honey Delight, Kobacha, Sweet Meat and Turbans. Common pumpkin varieties include Alladin, Amish, Baby Bear, Baby Boo, Big Max, Full Moon, Iron Man and Jack Be Little.

Western nutritional profile of winter squash

Pumpkins and squashes are excellent sources of vitamins C, B1 and B6, niacin, dietary fiber, potassium, folic acid and pantothenic acid. They are high in alpha and beta carotenes, which gives their flesh its rich orange-gold coloring. The darker the flesh, the higher the concentration of carotenes which are shown to protect against cancers and type 2 diabetes. And all hard fleshed squash are fabulous at regulating the bowels–whether you have loose stools, constipation, Crohn’s or IBS–if you need bowel regulation, use squash. Squash are fabulous foods for those who have fragile digestions. In fact, in my 20+ years as a therapist, I’ve not encountered anyone with a winter squash or pumpkin sensitivity or allergy and it’s one of the first foods I put babies and elderly on.

The Asian energetics of winter squash

From an Asian (Chinese medicine) nutritional perspective, winter squash are the perfect food to strengthen the Earth Element and its organs the Stomach and Spleen. It’s the firm foundation of your body–like the foundation of the house. The Spleen, in Asian medicine – which rules the digestive system – keeps the flesh and muscles strong and creates vibrant energy, immunity, and is the basis for building Blood in the body. A healthy Spleen allows for clear thought and the ability to study—no more muzzy mind.

Winter squash strengthens and warms the core, tonifies Qi and drains damp. Translation—they help regulate blood sugar, remove excess damp conditions like candida, phlegm and mucus and create a strong lasting energy and digestive system.

With their naturally sweet, neutral flavor winter squash can lend themselves easily to sweet or savory dishes. There nearly as many ways to cook squashes as their are varieties. The trick is to try several different ways of cooking to find what you like. All winter squash are edible–even the little tiny pumpkins. When it comes to cooking and eating pumpkins, you may choose to use the pie pumpkins over varieties grown for Jack-O-Laterns which tend to be stringy and less desirable for some recipes or palates–but they are still edible. However you choose to cook it, make sure it is tender all the way through but not mushy—unless your goal is a puree or baby food. I personally love Hubbard squash as they are heavy producers (put on a lot of flesh) and have a very smooth, beautiful orange flesh that is full of flavor.

The Problem with Pumpkins

How can we have a problem with such a fun food? In highly industrialized nations, we have a huge problem with waste. Once highly treasured as an inexpensive, easy to store and highly nutritious source of sustenance, pumpkins rarely make it onto people’s plates. The exception being Halloween and the winter holidays. The US Department of Energy reports that nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins are grown each year. Of that, nearly 1.3 billion pounds end up uneaten. Food waste that ends up in landfills doesn’t compost or breakdown properly and is a major contributor to methane (that’s worse than Co2) as far as greenhouse gasses go. Please eat your pumpkins, or at the very least compost them correctly.

How Do you Eat a Pumpkin or Winter Squash?

Choose your method of cooking

Bake it- If your squash is small enough to fit in the oven whole simply puncture a few slits in it with a knife so it won’t burst while cooking. Cool and then clean out the seeds and the flesh should easily fall away from the peel. This is an excellent way to prep squash before using it in a soup or making pumpkin/squash pack for pies or baked goods.

Sauté it- Peel and dice winter squash then season with salt and pepper. Toss in a little rosemary, sage and lemon to brighten the flavor.

Roast it – Winter squash cubes with other root vegetables like beets, onions, carrots and sweet potatoes. Try it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, rosemary, thyme and sage. You can also roast it with a sesame oil and tamari sauce.

Steam it – Diced squash in a steamer basket for a moister squash. Top of the rice cooker works beautifully

Stuff it – acorn, butternut or small pumpkins that have been halved, cleaned and prebaked with a flavorful lentil or rice pilaf.

Toss it in the soup pot- Late Summer Squash and Corn Chowder.

Fill ravioli – with a a squash puree with a little asiago or goat cheese.

Layer it – into lasagna, casseroles or au gratins and salads. Warm Autumn Salad.

Pureé it – for a pasta sauce with a little broth and cream. You can also freeze or can the pureé for later use.

Mash it – as a side dish with a little butter and your favorite spice.

Play with flavors, spice and herbs

Add Zest – Add a splash of lemon, lime or orange to brighten the flavor.

Sharp Cheese – grate on a little Parmesan, feta or Asiago to bring out the squash’s nutty flavorings.

Savory herbs – Use savory combinations like curry, coriander and mace. Squash’s earthy notes are perfectly complimented by sage, rosemary and thyme.

Sweet herbs – Ginger, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and all spice are lovely with squash. Learn more about Pumpkin Pie Spice.

Here’s to a stronger core!