The gourd family includes a large number of species, one of them being the summer squash. Gourds are also known under the name of "cucurbits", because the scientific name of the family is Cucurbitaceae. This extended plant family provides many edible species besides the summer squash, for examples winter squashes and melons.
Like all squashes, the origin of the summer squash is on the North American continent. It is native to areas located in the south and center of the USA. In these regions and in the north of Mexico several varieties of squashes still grow in the wild. Humans have domesticated the squash a long time ago; it was initially cultivated only in the Americas. It is now found all over the world, after European colonists discovered its usefulness. The US states that produce the largest number of summer squashes are Florida and California, but also northern states like Michigan and New York. Mexico and other countries also export significant amounts of squashes to the USA.
The summer squash is not a single species; since multiple varieties are grouped under this name. They all have in common the time of harvest; they are picked early so that the rind remains soft enough to be consumed. By contrast, winter squashes are harvested at maturity and the rind must be removed since it has become too hard.
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The yellow crookneck squash is one of the most popular summer squash varieties, which makes it very common. The name comes from the soft edible rind, due to its bright yellow color. This cultivar has a wider body that becomes narrow at the neck, a shape that is typical for almost all types of gourds. It is a common ingredient in vegetable mixes, due to the great taste and spectacular color. It can be cooked wholly or added as slices or cubes in salads.
Other very popular summer squash species are the zucchini and the scallop squash. They are best suited for stir-fried recipes or as an ingredient in casseroles where they pair very well with many other foods. These varieties have an intense flavour that can be exposed by lightly seasoning them during cooking, which can really improve the final result.
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One reason for the popularity of squashes in cuisine is their versatility: they can be easily cooked and are used in many recipes. A squash can be sliced and diced, then mixed with almost any other vegetable for a delicious recipe. A casserole can easily be prepared by adding filler. Onions are considered the best pair for summer squashes, since these flavours are compatible.
Marinated vegetable mixes can also benefit from the inclusion of squashes, in order to improve their color. A classic recipe marinated in Italian dressing consists of yellow summer squash slices with cooked chickpeas, tomato wedges, sliced cucumbers and purple onions. It is a great side dish that is consumed cold, especially in hot climates, and can be prepared quickly.
There are two main differences between the summer squash and the winter one: the shelf life and the texture of the rind. The summer squash must be consumed quickly because it doesn't last long. It is a fresh vegetable that should ideally be prepared and eaten as soon as possible after harvest. Winter squashes have a tough skin that protects the pulp, and can be stored for several months during the winter for later consumption.
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The summer squash is rich in nutrients and provides a good combination of antioxidants, vitamin C, magnesium and other bioactive compounds. Due to these antioxidant elements, consuming summer squashes can counter the effect of free radicals and prevent them from damaging tissues. Cellular metabolism naturally produces free radicals and the body has some mechanisms of defence against them. However, when these mechanisms fail, free radicals can cause early ageing and many serious diseases such as heart problems or cancers. Summer squashes are excellent for good vision due to the high content of both vitamin A and carotenoids such as zeaxanthin or lutein. The nutrients provided by them can neutralize free radicals and various toxins, making the immune system more effective against all kinds of threats.
Diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases of the modern world and millions of people suffer from it. Its symptoms can be managed only by a strict control of the sugar metabolism. B-complex vitamins, which are found in large amounts in the summer squash, play an important role in regulating metabolism. Squashes also provide other useful compounds for diabetes management, such as the polysaccharide pectin and dietary fibers. Pectin is key in controlling blood glucose levels and maintaining the proper balance between insulin and sugar in the body. It limits the wild glucose level swings that can be lethal for people who suffer from diabetes and allows the internal organs to always function at maximum efficiency.
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Inflammation is one of the most widespread conditions that can affect any part of the body. It is sometimes a sign of more serious problem, such as infections and fevers, but it can also be triggered by gout, arthritis and other chronic diseases.
Summer squashes have strong anti-inflammatory properties since they are rich in lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene and other carotenoids, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. They also provide homogalacturonan, an interesting polysaccharide with anti-inflammatory effects. Researchers have proven the anti-inflammatory impact of squashes on the cardiovascular system, as well as the symptoms of gastric and duodenal ulcers. However, it is very likely that the compounds found in these vegetables have wider effects, including on arthritis or gout. Type-2 diabetes is one of the conditions that can cause general inflammation, so consuming squashes provides an additional benefit to people suffering from it.
The summer squash is rich in both the natural antioxidant vitamin C and the rarer mineral manganese. Manganese is an important trace nutrient that is needed for the strength and development of bones and the assimilation of calcium. It is also part of the chemical structure of some enzymes. Manganese is especially needed for the density of the spinal column.
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As one of the most useful bioactive compounds, vitamin C plays many roles. It helps the build-up of bone mass since it boosts the production of collagen. Squashes are also rich in magnesium, which is needed for healthy bones and joints. They provide many other nutrients that improve bone mineral density and prevent osteoporosis, such as zinc, phosphorous, iron and folate.
Including squashes in your menu can offer protection against diseases in general, by improving immunity. Bioactive nutrients found in their composition are especially active against particular toxins and germs that can be very dangerous for the body. The seeds are a popular snack that significantly increases the reaction against some types of pathogens, fungi and parasites. Squash seeds are a traditional cure for intestinal parasites, such as tapeworms.
Of all vitamins found in summer squashes, the most abundant is vitamin A. It has many uses in the human body and can be very valuable to people who are constantly exposed to cigarette smoke and other carcinogens, reducing the risk of emphysema. Squashes also supply beta-cryptoxanthin, an essential carotenoid with the ability to protect from lung cancers. Scientists recommend foods rich in vitamin A as a general method of protection against lung cancers, since this lethal disease is the most common type of tumour.
Folate is one of the nutrients found in impressive amounts in the summer squash. It is essential for women during pregnancy because infants need it to properly develop their neural system, without birth defects. The summer squash should be a part of the diet of pregnant women, since a lack of folic acid has been proven to cause neural tube defects.
Many heart issues can be prevented if the balance between magnesium and potassium in the body is optimal. Both of these essential minerals are found in the summer squash and work to protect the cardiovascular system. The pressure on the arteries and blood vessels is reduced due to the vasodilator effect of potassium, allowing the heart to operate easily and improving the flow of blood. As a result, tissues and internal organs work better since more oxygen reaches them. Squashes provide pectin and other types of fibers that remove cholesterol from arterial walls. Cholesterol deposits are the root cause for many serious problems like heart attacks, strokes or atherosclerosis.
Another toxic compound that can greatly increase the risk of cardiovascular conditions when it builds-up in the body is homocysteine. It can be countered with a high concentration of folate, which is supplied by the summer squash.
Including summer squashes in your diet can prevent the irritation that leads to asthma. This is due to the strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of some natural compounds found in squashes, which can provide relief from asthmatic conditions.
Some summer squash cultivars are very rich in the building blocks of red blood cells, which are the minerals iron and copper. A deficiency of these minerals, especially iron, leads to the condition known as anemia that has many unpleasant symptoms such as a general feeling of weakness. A proper supply of iron has the opposite effect and actually boosts cell oxygenation by improving blood flow, which provides a higher level of energy and improves brain function.
Beta-carotene is found in unusually high amounts in any summer squash. A single serving of this vegetable can actually provide a whopping dose of up to four times the daily requirement of vitamin A. The body uses an enzyme to convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, but only the required amount. Any diet that includes squashes will offer a massive amount of beta-carotene along with all the needed vitamin A that can be converted from it. While vitamin A is very important for health, beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant compound on its own and protects the eyes from oxidative damage. It greatly reduces the risk of vision problems like cataract, macular degeneration or glaucoma.