A palate pleaser with a decorative shell, winter squash adds rich flavors and colors to the holiday table. While their large size and tough exterior make them appear cumbersome, these sweet, creamy vegetables should be on your autumn "must-have" list.

A palate pleaser with a decorative shell, winter squash adds rich flavors and colors to the holiday table. While their large size and tough exterior make them appear cumbersome, these sweet, creamy vegetables should be on your autumn "must-have" list.

Thick-skinned pumpkins, butternut and acorn squash are members of the cucumber family, Cucurbita pepo, and grow well in hot sun with regular watering. South Medford Grange Co-Op plant specialist Esther Lee says, "Winter squash, harvested in late fall, have hard rinds, good tasting flesh and store well."

When harvesting bumpy turban or smooth, tan butternut squash, leave a few inches of stem attached as it helps retain moisture. Resist the urge to use the stem as a handle on an unwieldy pumpkin, as you'll end up carrying the stem and wearing the squash. To avoid squishy squash, harvest them before the first frost, then cure.

Curing isn't necessary for ripe squash, but immature or imperfect squash benefit from this process that hardens and heals their skin. Oregon State University Extension Center's Storing Vegetables and Fruits at Home recommends holding them between 80 to 85 degrees — next to the water heater or furnace — for 10 days. Treat acorn squash differently. Simply store the small dark green (some with a splash of orange) squash at 45 to 50 degrees. Keep cured pumpkins and other squash in a dry 55 to 60-degree setting. Store cut squash covered in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Be careful slicing squash. The rind can be so hard that they are difficult to cut. Soften them in a microwave on full power for three minutes. Cut off the top and hollow out a pumpkin to use as a tureen for soup, or serve a harvest stew in acorn squash bowls. Squash holds its own with garlic, ginger and earthy tastes like truffles, grains and herbs such as rosemary and thyme. Local chef Richard Maynard uses squash varieties interchangeably to add flavor, color and vitamins to stews and curries.

"Each color has different flavors, vitamins and minerals," says Lee, who plants and prepares different colors. Each serving of nutty, sweet butternut, moist delicata, or rich golden acorn squash provides minerals, B vitamins, vitamin C and lots of vitamin A. Purée them before adding to baked goods. Maynard says, "Use older squash, the older the better"¦ they're easier to purée." Once puréed, add squash to moist batches of quick breads, luxurious cakes, and Harry Potter's favorite, Pumpkin Pasties (like little turnovers). Wrap them in parchment paper and tie with a plaid bow for appreciated holiday treats.

Justifiably used as a symbol for the autumn harvest, squash are sturdy, versatile, and rich in flavor and color "¦ a natural for the holiday season.