Before families could depend on home freezers and modern supermarkets to keep them supplied with vegetables throughout the winter, they relied on vegetables that could stay fresh for a long time.

Root cellars were full of potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions and winter squash.

Winter squash are related to summer squash varieties like zucchini, but winter squashes have thicker skin, and dense, meaty flesh. They keep three to four months or longer, unrefrigerated, in a cool dry place. Winter squash make beautiful autumn decorations, and then can be slowly eaten throughout the winter.

Winter squash are packed with vitamin A, healthful antioxidants, some vitamin C and plenty of fiber. Add low cost, moderate calories, and ease of preparation, and you have an almost unbeatable food that can be served in a number of ways.

When selecting winter squash at the supermarket or produce stand, look for a hard, tough rind and a squash that is heavy for its size. Avoid squash with cuts, punctures, sunken or soft spots on the rind, as these indicate signs of decay. A tender rind is a sign of immaturity and means poor keeping and eating quality.

Winter squash varieties

There are many different varieties of winter squash from which to choose. Here is a description of some of the more common varieties

Acorn squash are, yes, acorn-shaped! The are usually deep green outside and yellow-orange inside. Orange and white-skinned varieties are also available.

Butternut are creamy brown and an elongated bell shape.

Inside is deep orange, dense flesh that is creamy in texture when cooked.

Delicata are smallish and oblong. They have thin, creamy yellow skin speckled with orange and greenish stripes and inside are golden yellow. They cook quickly, making them ideal for quick meals.

Dumpling squash are small, round and sweet. They make fast and delicious accompaniments to roasted meats. Split them in half, remove the seeds, and cook them in the same roasting pan.

Hubbard squash tend to be large, lumpy and bluish-gray with a pointy stem end. The Hubbards have sweet, dry flesh and are nice in soups and stews.

Kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkins, look like small, rough green pumpkins and are good for soups and purees.

Long Island Cheese squash are something new to me- grown and shared by my co-worker Whitey Whitehill this fall. They are flattened, deeply ribbed, buff colored fruits with deep-orange sweet flesh. Excellent in pies. Stores well and named for its resemblance to a wheel of cheese.

Pumpkins are the best known and most popular of all the winter squash. While the big Halloween pumpkins are too stringy for good cooking quality, the smaller ones have sweet, dense flesh that make wonderful pies, as well as soups and purees.

Spaghetti squash are bright yellow and shaped like a football.

Their flesh cooks into strands like spaghetti and is delicious with tomato sauce or tossed with butter and herbs.

Turban squash are lovely shades of green, yellow and red-orange, and have a characteristic "hat" or turban on top. Popular with decorators, this squash may be cooked as usual or hollow out a raw turban and use as a spectacular soup tureen or container for dips, spreads or flowers.

Cooking winter squash

Nearly every winter squash is delicious roasted and simply served with a bit of butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper or herbs. Here are the basic instructions:

Carefully halve the squash lengthwise it make take a large knife or cleaver for big squash. Scoop out the seeds and discard, or roast to enjoy separately.

Place the squash halves, cut side down, in a shallow baking dish. Add a little water to the pan to create steam and prevent burning. Bake at 350 degrees until you can easily pierce the squash with a paring knife. This may be as little as 20 to 30 minutes for a Dumpling, or more than an hour for a Hubbard or pumpkin.

Serve the squash in single-serving-sized chunks, or scoop the flesh from the rind and mash until soft and smooth. Use the squash puree in your favorite recipe, or serve as you would mashed potatoes.

If you should find yourself the recipient of a large supply of winter squash with no appropriate storage area, you can freeze the cooked squash for later use. Simply bake as directed above, cube or puree the squash and freeze in meal- or recipe-sized amounts in sealed freezer containers.

So, the next time you're strolling through the produce section looking for something different to feed your family, choose winter squash. You'll find many varieties to add interest and nutrients to family meals.