Some are pretty, some are outright grotesque; some make wonderful table decorations.
But, according to Jyoti Jain, teacher of ayurvedic cooking classes at Whole Foods, squashes are primo foods. "Squash has vitamins, antioxidants, magnesium and fiber. It has very good nutrition value," she said.
Trained at the Art of Living Foundation, Jain said that ayurvedic cooking is all about "eating in tune with nature, following the rhythm of nature. ... We consider food as medicine."
Jain, who also runs her own catering firm, Spice by the Bay, gets a community-supported agriculture box of veggies each week from Full Belly Farm in Guinda (north of Sacramento). "It contains seasonal veggies. They grow about 12 varieties of squashes," she said.
But faced with such an array, what's a novice squash preparer to do?
Choose the little ones, such as Lil Tiger Stripe or the White Mini found at Mollie Stone's in Palo Alto, strictly for decoration. "Inside is not much flesh," Jain said.
And avoid most gourds for eating: They're from a more ornamental part of the squash family, she said — most are good for hollowing out and making into musical instruments or decorative bowls.
For eating, a very versatile squash is butternut, which can be used in soups or pies According to Jain, butternut can be substituted for pumpkin and is even better in a pie. Similar are the kabocha and buttercup, she said. "They have sweet flavor and no stringiness."
If you compare two squashes by size, choose the heavier one, Jain said. "The heavier they are, the sweeter," she said, adding that it's best to reject those with discolored skin.
If the skin is thick and hard to peel, Jain suggests softening the squash by popping it in the oven at 350 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes; it'll cook completely in about an hour.
As an ayurvedic cook, she does not recommend baking it in a microwave. "Ayurvedic cooking is holistic — cooking for the mind, body and spirit," she said. "You are what you eat and what you digest. It's important to balance yourself. The best is organic with no pesticides, not processed, seasonal."
After purchase, squashes can be stored in a cool, dry place (even outside) for months, she said, but not in the refrigerator.
One of Jain's favorite squashes is delicata, with a lighter flavor, which she finds good roasted with a little olive oil, cut in half, scooped out, placed face down on a cooking sheet and baked for half an hour.
You can even eat squash seeds, after cleaning off the fiber, and baking them.
Jain grew up in Mumbai, India, and came to the United States in 1992 to study chemistry at Baylor University, where she earned her master's degree. After marrying, she and her husband moved to California where they've lived for 24 years. In 1998 she completed an MBA in hospitality and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.
"I was always interested in cooking. I learned at my mother's feet," she said. "She was a very patient teacher."
As an adult, she "saw how important it is to eat healthy" and her ayurvedic training reinforced the idea of eating organic fresh fruits and vegetables.
But squashes can be much more than edible.
The turban squash, for example, she calls "nature's serving bowl. It's so beautiful to look at." She suggests hollowing it out a bit before filling with soup or rice.
"Cinderella pumpkins make beautiful bowls, too," she added.
In addition to her catering company, cooking classes and volunteer work with the Art of Living Foundation, Jain also sells vegan cookies through Whole Foods Markets. Called ahimsa, the cookies are made of coconut and cardamom, with whole grains.
"It's my way of giving back to the community. A lot of moms don't have time to make (healthy) snacks," she added.
Kabocha Squash Soup
6 cups low-sodium, organic vegetable broth
Medium-sized organic kabocha squash
1 inch organic fresh ginger
2 teaspoons cumin powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 organic lemon
2 tablespoons organic cilantro
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
Seasoning (tadka) ingredients:
1 teaspoon organic cumin seeds
1 teaspoon organic mustard seeds
1 pinch organic asafetida
1 pinch organic turmeric powder
1 tablespoon clarified butter
1. Preheat oven to 350ˇF
2. Place the whole kabocha squash on a sheet pan with parchment baking paper and bake for 45 minutes to an hour. Remove from oven.
2. Cut squash in half using a chef's knife, reserving one half for another use. Scoop the seeds out with a spoon and discard. Scoop the flesh out into a bowl.
3. Blend the kabocha squash with the vegetable broth and ginger in a blender.
4. For the seasoning or tadka, heat clarified butter in thick-bottomed stainless pot. Add cumin seeds, mustard seeds, 1 pinch of turmeric and 1 pinch asafetida.
5. Once cumin seeds brown and mustards seeds splutter, approximately 15 seconds, add the blended squash mixture to the pot. Add cumin powder, coriander powder, black pepper and sea salt and bring to a boil.
6. Take off from heat and add juice of 1/2 the lemon and mix well. Transfer into individual soup bowls. Garnish with cilantro and serve hot.
Mashed Buttercup Squash
1 organic buttercup squash
1/2 cup organic coconut milk
1/2 cup organic medium shred unsweetened coconut
3/4 cup organic maple syrup
1 teaspoon freshly grated organic nutmeg
3 organic whole green cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed with mortar and pestle
1/3 cup organic "raw" whole cashews, dry roasted
1. Preheat oven to 350ˇF.
2. Wash the squash, then place on a sheet pan lined with baking parchment paper. Bake for 60 minutes, until skin is softened and squash is cooked. A knife should pierce right to the center with ease.
3. Cut squash in half, and scoop out and discard the seeds. Scoop out the flesh out with a spoon and put into a mixing bowl. Mash with spoon.
4. Stir in coconut milk, maple syrup, coconut, nutmeg and cardamom. Mix well.
5. Transfer into individual serving bowls. Garnish with roasted whole cashews and serve at room temperature.