Savoring Summer Squash

Summer squash are squashes that are harvested when immature, while the rind and seeds are still tender and edible raw or cooked. Nearly all summer squash squashes are varieties of Cucurbita pepo, though not all Cucurbita pepo are considered summer squashes. They are members of the Cucurbitaceae family, along with chayotewatermelon, cucumber, horned melon, muskmelon, cantaloupe, Persian melon, Korean melon, canary melon, casaba, Hami melon, honeydew, kolkhoznitsa melon, Santa Claus melon, sugar melon, tiger melon, Japanese melons, galia, sharlyn melons, Crenshaws, and crane melons.

Most summer squash grow like bushes, as opposed to the rambling vines of many winter squashes. The name “summer squash” refers to the short storage life of these squashes, unlike that of winter squashes. The name squash is apparently derived from a Coastal Algonquin word, askoot asquash, meaning “eaten green.”  In English-speaking countries other than the United States, they are generally called “vegetable marrows.”

Summer squashes that are varieties of Cucurbita pepo and grow like a bush include:

  • Zucchini (courgette)
  • Cousa squash, which are pale-colored zucchini varieties
  • Cocozelle, which are similar to zucchini in appearance, but are generally large, about 12-16 inches long and 2-3 inches in diameter, with skin that is a pale greenish-white with stripes of slightly darker green

  • Pattypan or Scallop squash, is known for its small, round, shallow shape with scalloped edges, with white, green, or yellow skin
  • Yellow crookneck squash
  • Yellow summer squash
  • Zephyr squash, from a cross between yellow crookneck squash and a squash that was created from a cross between delicata and yellow acorn squash

Summer squashes of other species include:

  • Tromboncino or Zucchetta, a variety of Cucurbita moschata that is unusual among summer squash in that the plant forms vines
  • Immature Ridge gourd Luffa aegyptiaca and Luffa acutangula, which is used as a summer squash in India, where it is known as turai or dodka.

Humans have been eating squash for at least 12,000 years, as evidenced by seeds found in Ecuadorian caves. Summer squash probably originated in North America, where they were a staple of the Native American diet. In the Americas, squash, corn, and beans were the three primary crops. Known as the “Three Sisters” by the Iroquois, these crops worked symbiotically. The corn provided a growing structure for the climbing beans and the bean vines better rooted the corn to ground so the stalks were not as easily blown over or washed out. The beans fixed nitrogen in the soil to fertilize the corn and squash, especially because corn uses a lot of nitrates from the soil. The squash plants acted as living mulch to prevent weeds and retain moisture in the soil, while the prickly stems deterred pests. When the three crops were eaten together, they provided a nutritional balance of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and vitamins.

The White Scallop squash, also known as Pattypan squash, is a Native American heirloom, grown by northeastern Native Americans for hundreds of years. Around 1700, it was introduced to Europe where it gained popularity, although squash in general was not widely eaten in Europe until the late nineteenth century.

Summer squash can:

  1. Fight free radicals. As an excellent source of vitamin C and manganese, as well as a good source of vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoid phytochemicals), summer squash provides you with a great combination of conventional antioxidant nutrients. But it also contains an unusual amount of other antioxidant nutrients, including the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants are especially helpful in fighting free radicals in your eyes, including protecting you against age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. If properly handled and prepared, summer squash also retains its antioxidant activity after steaming or freezing. To obtain full antioxidant benefits from summer squash, you need to eat not only the flesh, but also the skin and the seeds. Many valuable antioxidant nutrients are in those portions of the squash.
  2. Promote healthy blood sugar. Metabolizing sugar in your body requires an ample supply of many B-complex vitamins, and summer squash provides valuable amounts of most of these B-complex vitamins, including vitamin B6, riboflavinfolatethiamine, niacin, and choline. Also important in blood sugar metabolism are the minerals zinc and magnesium, as well as omega-3 fatty acids, and summer squash provides all of these nutrients. Healthy blood sugar also depends on an optimal intake of fiber. Summer squash not only provides a very good amount of dietary fiber at 2.5 grams per cup, but it also provides polysaccharide fibers like pectin that have special benefits for blood sugar regulation. The pectin polysaccharides in summer squash often include chains of D-galacturonic acid called homogalacturonan, which help keep insulin metabolism and blood sugar levels in balance, and protect against the onset of type 2 diabetes.
  3. Fight chronic inflammation. Omega-3 fats in the seeds of summer squash, anti-inflammatory carotenoids like lutein, zeaxanthin and beta-carotene, and anti-inflammatory polysaccharides like homogalacturonan in summer squash protect against chronic inflammation, especially in your cardiovascular system and your gastrointestinal tract, where it can cause gastric and duodenal ulcers. Because chronic inflammation is also a risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes, the anti-inflammatory benefits of summer squash may play an important role in protecting you against type 2 diabetes as well.
  4. Fight pathogenic microbes. The seeds of summer squash and oils extracted from its seeds have anti-microbial properties, and particularly, anti-parasitic properties. Dried summer squash seeds are used in some parts of the world to treat intestinal tapeworms or other intestinal parasites.
  5. Support prostate health. Seeds of summer squash (and oils from those seeds) have traditionally been used to help lower frequency of urination that is commonly experienced in men diagnosed with the non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland known as benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH.
  6. Fight cancer. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients in summer squash combine to fight cancer. The development of many cancer types depends on chronic oxidative stress that can occur along with poor intake of antioxidant nutrients, and chronic, inflammation that can occur along with lack of anti-inflammatory nutrients.

Nutrients in 100 Grams of Raw Summer Squash

Nutrient

Amount

Daily Value

vitamin C

17 mg

28%

vitamin B6

0.3 mg

11%

manganese

0.2 mg

9%

riboflavin

0.1 mg

8%

potassium

262 mg

7%

folate

29 µg

7%

vitamin A

200 IU

4%

phosphorus

38 mg

4%

magnesium

17 mg

4%

vitamin K

3 µg

4%

fiber

1.1 g

4%

copper

0.1 mg

3%

thiamine

0.048 mg

3%

protein

1.2 g

2%

niacin

0.5 mg

2%

iron

0.4 mg

2%

zinc

0.3 mg

2%

pantothenic acid

0.2 mg

2%

choline 6.7 mg 1.67%
calcium

15 mg

1%

carbohydrates

3.3 g

1%

Calories

16

0.8%

sodium

8 mg

0.5%

selenium

0.2 µg

0.36%

fat

0.2 g

0.3%

vitamin E

0.1 mg

0.3%

cholesterol

0 mg

0%

lutein-zeaxanthin

2125 µg

carotene-ß

120 µg

Purchase organic summer squash to lower risk of contaminants (like pesticides). Look for summer squash that are heavy for their size and have shiny, unblemished rinds. Overly large summer squash may be fibrous, while overly small ones may be inferior in flavor. Avoid hard rinds, as this indicates that the squash are over-mature and will have hard seeds and stringy flesh.

Summer squash is very fragile and should be handled with care as small punctures will lead to decay. Store it unwashed in an air-tight container in the refrigerator, where it will keep for about seven days.

While summer squash can be frozen, freezing will make the flesh much softer, although frozen squash retains much of its nutrient content and antioxidant activity. To freeze summer squash, gently cleanse the skin of the summer squash under cold running water, using a soft brush if necessary. Slice it and steam it for three minutes. Remove squash from the steamer and let it cool thoroughly before placing in freezer containers and storing in the freezer.

Wash summer squash under cool running water and then cut off the stem end. Cut it into whatever size and shape you need for the particular recipe.

Serve raw summer squash spears with your favorite dips.

Sprinkle grated raw summer squash on top of salads and sandwiches.

Make ratatouille by sauteing summer squash, zucchini with onions, garliceggplantyellow and orange pepperstomatoes, and basil for ratatouille, and serve over brown rice. Or saute simply with onions and green peppers for calabacitas, the Central American squash dish that can be served at breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

To saute summer squash, heat 3 tablespoons of vegetable broth in a stainless steel skillet. When bubbles begin to form add sliced squash, cover, and saute for 1-1/2 minutes on one side, and then 1-1/2 minutes on the other side on medium heat. Transfer to a bowl and toss with your favorite dressing or seasonings.

Serve pattypan squash with its flesh scooped out, mixed with flavorings, and reinserted prior to being served.

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