It’s the end of the year. That means our trip around the world is coming to an end. We have explored diverse crops and the traditions and cuisines they inspire! It seems appropriate to end our tour at home to discover the history, benefits, and uses of winter squash. After all, it is a vegetable native to the Americas.

A Brief History of the Winter Squash

Squash, the oldest cultivated crop in North America, was an important staple crop to the Native Americans. Many tribes, especially those in the Northern regions, relied heavily on the harvest of winter squash. Thanks to its low water content and thick skin, the natives stored and ate it through the long, cold winters.

Some varieties of winter squash, such as butternut and Blue Hubbard, taste better after they ‘age’ post-harvest. The taste and texture improve due to changes in the starch content. They also become more nutritious with the concentration of anti-inflammatory carotenoid pigments that increase during storage.

The Native Americans grew squash along with two other primary crops, corn and beans, using a technique known as ‘companion gardening.’ The Iroquois dubbed the three crops the “Three Sisters” because they planted them together and they grew symbiotically. The Three Sisters provided balanced nutrition through the unique nutrients each contained. Together, these crops were the foundation of American Indian agriculture.

Native Americans used every part of the winter squash, from the seeds to blossoms. Frequently, they baked squash whole in the coals of a fire. When cooked, they ate it as-is or drizzled it with animal fats, honey, or maple syrup for added flavor and moisture. They sliced and boiled squash, or laid it out in the sun to dry. Then, it could be stored for even longer and rehydrated later in water and cooked. Seeds were scooped out and dried, roasted and spiced, and then mixed with dried fruits or nuts. The blossoms were usually fried or added to soups, but also consumed raw. Even the hollowed-out shells of the winter squashes were used to store water.

This Month’s Recipe: Easy Baked Winter Squash

You could say that this month’s recipe represents the “three sisters” of weeknight meal planning. It’s easy, tasty, and versatile.

The sweet flavors of the squash, maple and spices balance the tangy citrus juice. The recipe calls for maple syrup (another one of our favorite American crops), but try honey in a pinch or if you want to change it up.

When cubed, try adding the roasted squash to salads and whole grain dishes or soups, pizzas, and casseroles.

If mashed, the squash is perfect as a side dish. Mix it with other mashed vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, or cauliflower for variety. No need to go crazy with preparing winter squash – keep it simple and allow the natural sweetness and flavor to come through!

Easy Baked Winter Squash

  • 4winter squash, halved and seeded (acorn or carnival is a good size, but any will do)
  • 1/2cupfrozen orange juice concentrate (or you can use another citrus juice)
  • 4Tbspolive oil, or melted butter or margarine
  • 8Tbspmaple syrup or brown sugar
  • 2tspground nutmeg (or to taste)
  • 1/4tspcinnamon (or to taste)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Add 1/2 inch water to two baking dishes. Place squash halves cut side down in the dish, and bake for 40 minutes.
  3. Whisk together the other ingredients.
  4. Turn squash halves cut side up in the baking dish, and drizzle with the juice mixture.
  5. Continue baking for 20 minutes more, remove, and wait to cool before eating.
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For more on winter squash including recipes, interesting facts, and books for kids, check out the Vermont Harvest of the Month website.

Get more recipes from the UVM Medical Center. View our Recipe Collection by clicking here. 

Bridget Shea, RD, is a clinical dietitian at The University of Vermont Medical Center.

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