Soulful, warming and satisfying, the rich flavor and dense nature of winter squash truly speaks to the coziness we crave this time of year. Harvested throughout the fall months, many varieties of winter squash are hearty enough to last through the winter. Though pumpkins and butternut squash may be the most recognizable of the bunch, lesser-known squash varieties like delicata, acorn, red kuri and hubbard, which were once limited to the farmer's market, can now be found at your local grocer.

Mild and slightly sweet, winter squash is a nutrition powerhouse as well as a versatile ingredient. Their bright yellow and orange flesh, which boasts a significant amount of disease-preventing antioxidants in the form of beta-carotene, is an undeniable characteristic of this clique. Low in calories and rich in fiber, winter squash is also a good source of immune-boosting vitamin C, B6 and potassium.

When squash shopping, choose one that has a hard, almost tough skin and avoid those with bruises and soft spots as they will decay faster. To prolong the shelf-life, store them in a cool dark place.

Winter squash varieties can be roasted, stuffed, sautéed and even incorporated into seasonal dishes like soups, stews, pasta dishes and even desserts. If you are not motivated to peel the tough, uneven skin you can always halve and seed most varieties and simply roast them whole.  Even partially cooking a squash will make the skin easier to remove.

Before you tackle cooking winter squash, first, get to know the varieties:

Pumpkin: The smaller, soccer ball sized sugar pumpkin weighs in at around two-four pounds. It is known for its thick, dense flesh and natural sweetness. Roast one up then puree the flesh for a killer DIY "canned" pumpkin puree that can be used in soups, sauces, smoothies and, of course, to make a killer pie.

Acorn Squash:  True to its name, this acorn-shaped squash can't resist a good stuffing. Halve and seed the squash, then roast it (cut-side down) for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Now for the stuffing—from chicken sausage and wild rice to white beans and kale, the possibilities are endless. Choose your favorite, add it to the cavity and roast the dish for another 10-15 minutes then serve. For ease, you can skip the stuffing and simply seed and dice or slice the squash then roast it with olive oil, salt, pepper and herbs. It will be tender and ready to eat, skin and all in 30 minutes.

Butternut Squash: Sweet and slightly nutty in flavor, the creamy texture makes this variety a real crowd pleaser. You can roast it, sauté it, puree it and more. While soups are a classic use for butternut squash, you can get more creative and incorporate it into dishes like lasagna or even this Smoky Butternut Squash Hummus.

Delicata Squash: This low-maintenance squash variety can be cooked up in 20 minutes! It's delicate skin and flavor are a nod to its namesake. Whether you stuff or roast it, its potato-like consistency and natural sweetness lends to the approachability of this squash variety. Simply halve, seed and slice it to make an easy side dish like this Maple Roasted Delicata Squash and Pumpkin Seed recipe.

Spaghetti Squash: When cooked, this squash yields noodle-like strands that have been used as a lower-carbohydrate pasta substitute. For fast results, poke the whole squash with a fork to make steam holes and then microwave it for 10 minutes (per two pounds). Once cooled, halve and seed the squash. Then, using a fork, gently scrape the flesh to reveal the "noodles." Not a fan of the microwave? Halve seed and roast your squash at 400 degrees for around 45 minutes. The flesh should be tender. Spaghetti squash will take on the flavors you pair it with — try a traditional tomato or pesto sauce or even toss it with complimentary vegetables, beans and animal proteins like chicken sausage.

Kabocha Squash: This short and squat squash is ideal for roasting, steaming and pureeing. More savory than sweet, green kabocha, the Japanese word for squash, has a nutty, earthy flavor. The red variety is noticeably sweeter. Both varieties work well with rich flavors like Indian curries, cumin, smoked paprika and cinnamon.

Red Kuri Squash: Another Japanese squash variety, it is known for its deep, redish orange skin and creamy, yellow flesh. The thick skin makes it difficult to peel so it is best to roast with the skin intact or shred the raw flesh. Red Kuri Squash makes for beautifully-hued and flavorful soups, risottos or stews. Pureed, red kuri holds up well to coconut based curry blends like those found in Thai cuisine.  

Hubbard Squash: This large squash boasts a skin tone that ranges from dark green to blue-ish grey. The hard shell allows for its long shelf-life — up to six months, if stored in a cool, dark area. The sweet, dense, orange flesh makes for a perfect and inexpensive alternative to pumpkin. It purees well and is often used in soups and as a pie filing but don't limit yourself. Pureed hubbard squash can be incorporated into hot breakfast cereals, baked goods, hummus and more. If you have too much to use—just freeze it!

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Katie Cavuto MS, RD is a registered dietitian and trained chef. She is the president of Healthy Bites, a company offering local and national culinary nutrition services. Katie is also the consulting dietitian for the Philadelphia Phillies, and a regular contributor on local and national TV as an expert in her field. Visit her website at nourishbreathethrive.com.

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