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Spring and Summer, 2014

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Winter Squash: The Last Trophy of the Season

Winter squash not only makes an appearance on the table for Thanksgiving but vies with heirloom tomatoes as a gardener’s collector vegetable. Nutritious and beautiful, winter squash inspires a cuisine both savory and sweet. And one last remarkable trait: most squashes will store for weeks, or months, depending on the variety.

After the tomatoes and summer squash have been pulled from the garden, winter squash sits triumphantly, the last trophy of a productive season, a culinary reason to welcome winter and bid summer goodbye. Cinnamon and nutmeg, candied ginger and spiced apples. Dried cherries or dates, brown sugar and butter toppings, chopped pecans and fresh pineapple—the sweetness of winter squash invites fruits, spices, nuts, molasses, honey and brown sugar. 

Parmesan cheese and sage leaves, leeks, mushrooms and roasted onions—savory additions quickly alter a winter squash to the opposite side of the palate. Either way, winter squash arrives with the intense flavors of orange-fleshed globes of kabocha or the mild, easy-to-mix-with subdued acorns.

Today most supermarkets are compelled to offer acorn, butternut, kabocha, spaghetti and banana winter squash. These last two may be cut and sold in chunks. Cooks have learned to roast winter squash slowly, stir-fry slender slices for quick meals, or puree for soup. Trying a variety of squash from the grocery may help to narrow down which variety you’d want to plant in the garden. 

It’s one of the most important seed buying decisions because nearly all winter squashes take space. And while seed suppliers continue to offer new cultivars of smaller bush varieties, to experience many kinds of winter squash would require a farm, so sprawling are the vines. So if your garden is small, or you have only a patio with containers as your vegetable patch, it pays to find a squash that you love, and then puzzle over a way to grow it successfully.

If you love heirlooms and own a large garden, then the Hubbard squash, warty and blue-green, may be the best. A patio and container only? Consider many of the tiny varieties of miniature pumpkins like the ‘We Be Little Pumpkins’ or ‘Small Sugar’. Perhaps you prefer a deeply flavored squash, with dense flesh. Take a look at the buttercup collection that includes the popular kabocha. Trying to please the entire family? Kids may eat the spaghetti squash while refusing any other. Acorn and delicata are best if you want a savory container for stuffing; both produce a mild flavor compared to other winter squashes. And acorn squash ripens earlier than most other winter squash, which makes it suitable for short growing seasons.

A winter squash like delicata is an heirloom. At one time overlooked and hard to find, now it’s roasted and filled with savory concoctions. Like it’s name, delicata offers a delicate flavor and won’t overpower any stuffing. 

Butternut, the more modern familiar standby, might have been the only winter squash specimen in produce bins just a few years ago. Closely related to the squashes raised for canned pie pumpkins, most cooks have encountered this squash for their first try.

Pumpkins also are winter squash. But most are grown to be like ornamental gourds: showy for autumn but too stringy and tasteless for gourmet fare. Beautiful scalloped pumpkins are popular, like the Rouge Vif d’Etampes. True, it’s billed as a good tasting pumpkin, but the flavor doesn’t compare to fine winter squashes. Better to choose a small variety pumpkin sweet and tender.

Then there are a few unusual choices like the Australian butter squash. This heirloom is stunningly beautiful, the color of creamy orange when ripe, with a nutty, buttery flavor. But the plant will take over, spreading roughshod over neighboring plants, even climbing into the low-hanging branches of trees, running along fences, setting one squash after another like holiday lights ready to be strung.

It’s the variety of winter squash, much like heirloom tomatoes, that enchants gardeners. If only one will fit into a summer’s garden, then the future offers the possibility of a different squash each year. An extra boon is that most last for weeks, even months, if stored properly. Once cooked, winter squash freezes well, too. So even the largest squash is not wasted. No wonder even the smallest garden yearns for a winter squash.

So after a harvest, you’re left with a collection of squash and only one question: how to cook it? Many cookbooks will tell you to slice a winter squash into chunks, or slices. I’ve long ago given up on that advice. There are two easy ways to cook winter squashes of any size. The fast way is to prick a squash with a sharp knife, place it in a microwave and allow it to cook for at least ten minutes. Many will require more time. You’ll have to keep checking until the squash is soft and pliable. This will steam the squash. Cut it in half, discard the seeds and scoop out the interior. Now it’s ready for freezing, turning it into a casserole, pie, soufflé or baked chunks.

A slower way is to roast the squash in the oven. This allows the sugars to sweeten and condense. Again, prick the skin with a knife (this allows steam to escape). Roast at 350 or 400-degrees for about one hour. The skin should be pliable. Cut the squash in half and use it exactly like you’d use the squash from the microwave. Either way, this is easy on the cook with wonderful results. 

After this basic treatment, consider what tastes appeal to you. The pumpkin pie flavors? Then add powdered ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. Freshly grated ginger will offer a strong spicy taste. I love these old-fashioned, traditional flavors. But fruit flavors are unsurpassed. Baked squash with chopped apples and pears is a seasonal start. Dried fruits like pineapple, sweetened cranberries and cherries will be equally delightful. A handful of chopped nuts, pecans or walnuts, strewn on top will toast in the oven as you bake the casserole. Maple syrup and brown sugar are traditional; try pomegranate syrup or flavorful honeys, too.

Save half your baked squash for a savory meal like a soup. A simple potato and leek soup is transformed by the addition of a strong-flavored squash like buttercup. Combine a mild squash like acorn with buttercup for risotto or a side dish. Sage and thyme join roasted onions as perfect companions. Parmesan cheese or ricotta insalata happily marry their flavors to any winter squash. Raisins and pine nuts with spinach or chard make great winter stuffing for a delicata, as does rice pilaf. Nearly any autumn seasonal dish is perfect with winter squash: chicken, duck, pork, and salmon. A lovely touch for soup is to fry fresh sage leaves in hot oil and float one or two on top the soup. With a little experimentation, winter squash will become a winter staple.

Winter squash has the same needs as summer squash: warm soil and bright sun. All belong to the Cuburbita family that includes cucumbers and melons. All require loamy, well-drained soil that is rich with compost and a bit of fertilizer not too high in nitrogen. Drainage is important. That’s why some farmers mound up hills and plant a few squash seeds atop. Squash probably originated in Mexico or Central America so it’s dramatically tender to cold, and wilts under the slightest drought. 

The major difference between summer and winter squash is that summer squash is eaten as soon as a squash develops. Winter squash must sit on the ground for weeks, even months, before it ripens. In some climates, the season is too short for decent winter squash production. It pays to look at the days required for ripening because winter squash must be harvested before a serious frost. If it’s not ripe by then, it will not truly ripen off the vine. After a harvest, experts recommend that you store the squash in warm, household temperatures for ten days, afterwards store at about 50 degrees in a place like a basement or garage.

Other than those basic needs, a winter squash will ramble and trail. I’ve had 15-foot vines snaking along the fence, staking territory on the lawn, winding around other plants and eventually leaping into the lower branches of a crabapple tree. But with a need for space, squash can grow in a small area, even in a container. If the roots are happy, the vines can be trellised against a fence, lined alongside a patio or walkway. Pair your squash with nasturtiums and you’ll have trailing flowers and vines intertwined. 

And while most gardening books suggest you plant the seeds directly in the ground because squash hate to be transplanted, you may not have that option in a short season climate. Most squash will take transplanting as a set back, but a bit of hovering over them with water and mulch will get them through. Squash leaves are pure theater in the plant world and wilt immediately to any loss of water. It’s most important to watch the climate and protect them from cold.

Squashes are easy to grow and attract few pests, those that do threaten can be prevented with row cover stretched over when they are tiny. Remove the cover when blossoms form because the plant needs bees for pollination to set fruit. By the time a plant is robust enough to produce flowers, the threat of most pests should be gone. In the case of squash borer, gardeners heap soil around the base of their plants for several inches. But many winter squash grow stems too thick and woody for the borers; check your local agricultural extension service for precise information.

Recipes

This simple soup is elegant when fried sage leaves float atop. It takes only minutes to prepare and you can double or triple the recipe for a crowd.

Winter Squash, Potato and Leek Soup

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 medium leeks washed and chopped, white part only
  • water to cover
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups cooked winter squash, buttercup or kabocha preferred
  • 2 medium potatoes peeled and cubed

Sauté leeks in olive oil until wilted. Add winter squash, potato and water to cover. Simmer until the squash and potato can be mashed. Let the soup cool. Add small amounts of soup to a blender until all the soup is puree. Add salt and pepper to taste and more water if need to meet the consistency you prefer. Serves six.

Optional: fry 6 fresh sage leaves in 2 tablespoons of olive oil for a minute, or until crisp but not brown. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel. Float the sage leaves atop the soup in bowls.

Winter Squash with Apples and Pears

  • 1 small apple, cored, peeled and sliced
  • 1 small pear, cored, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cups hot cooked winter squash, buttercup or butternut are good choices
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the apple and pear in butter in a saucepan. After both have softened, fold into the squash. Add the cinnamon, salt and pepper. Stir thoroughly.


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