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Eating Smart

Pick a Squash, Any Squash, It's All Healthy

May 03, 1999|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR | Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

It's getting to be that time of year when you and/or several friends and acquaintances will have more zucchini growing than you know what to do with.

Last year one of our colleagues showed up with a basketful of magnificent zucchini specimens. We were grateful--we said thank you. Two days later, another old friend, now retired and with plenty of time for gardening, dropped by 40 green, succulent zucchinis. We were grateful--we said thank you.

Now, these people want you to believe that this behavior is born of extravagant generosity. But we know differently, don't we? Nobody seems able to grow just enough zucchini for their own use. It is such a prolific vegetable that entire cookbooks have been written about it. But zucchini is only one of several so-called summer squashes.

Squash belongs to the same botanical family as melons and cucumbers. Summer squash has a soft shell, and its flesh is tender and light-colored. Winter squash, by contrast, has a harder shell and darker, less tender flesh. Although these distinctions used to be important when fruit and vegetables were only produced locally, in fact, most varieties are now available year-round everywhere.

All squash tend to have a high water content, so they are low in calories (about 25 per cup of cooked squash), and most varieties contain moderate amounts of vitamin C, beta carotene and fiber.

There are several types of summer squash. Their flavors and textures are so similar that they are almost entirely interchangeable in recipes.

* Patty pan: This is a small, greenish-white, disc-shaped squash that has scalloped edges and puffs out on the top and bottom. The inside is white. There is a yellow, more cup-shaped variety that is called sunburst.

* Yellow crookneck: This squash is narrow and curves at the end, where it has a kind of bulb. The skin is pale yellow and somewhat pebbled in texture. The inside is yellow.

* Yellow straight neck: This is almost exactly like crookneck, but it is straight. The skin can be pebbled or smooth and the flesh is somewhat paler.

* Zucchini: Our old friend looks like a small, slightly ridged cucumber. It can range from medium to dark green with pale flecks or stripes. There is a yellow variety (golden zucchini or gold rush) that is about the same size and shape, but has a deep, gold-yellow skin and dark green stem. It tastes somewhat sweeter than green zucchini.

* Chayote: This variety is best known in the South and Southwest, but by the miracle of modern transportation it is now becoming more and more popular around the United States. It is pear-shaped and pale to dark green or white. It also goes by the names mirliton, vegetable pear and christophene. Its surface is deeply ridged and has a large seed, rather than a lot of small ones. Its skin is thicker than other squash and it requires more cooking time.

In the world of squash, bigger is not necessarily better. Those huge, mutant-looking vegetables people win prizes for at state fairs are actually pretty coarse and stringy. Squash should be medium size (7 inches for the long ones and 4 inches for the flat variety). They should be firm and heavy for their size, which means they are still full of water and tender as a result.

Invariably, somebody will try to find a particularly good squash by using the old fingernail-through-the-skin test. While this admittedly crude method will tell you how firm the squash is, it also leaves a hole where decay can start. So just in case the shoppers who came before you poked but did not buy, be sure you pick out a squash that has a glossy exterior and no nicks or bruises. The squash should be plump, and the ends should not be shriveled. The color should be uniform and bright.

When you get your squash home, put it in a plastic bag and store in the vegetable crisper. The thick-skinned chayote will keep for two weeks or more, but the thinner-skinned varieties should be used within a week or they will start to shrivel up.

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