Preserving and cooking winter squash

Winter squash, as the name implies, is harvested in the late fall or winter (depending on where you live).  Its thick skin hardens as it cures, providing a protective casing for the flesh inside.  You can store it for many months in a cold room or similar environment.  Leave the stems on the fruits to keep them from drying out.  Place each squash on a few sheets of newspaper or a piece cardboard, ensuring that it doesn’t touch its neighbour.

 

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They’re not touching, honest!

If frost or winter necessitates picking a squash before it is fully ripe, it may ripen in storage so long as the ripening process started before you picked it.  A dark green, immature pumpkin, for example, may not ripen in storage. The spotted green squash on the above left is now, two months later, almost fully ripe.

Squashes can stay in cold storage for many months,  Check them periodically to ensure that they are not getting spongey or soft.  If this is the case, it is time to use them!

There are a few ways to cook winter squash, but here’s what I like to do:

  1. Cut the squash in half.
  2. Scoop out the seeds, but leave the stringy stuff inside.
  3. Place halves on a cookie sheet or baking dish, peel side down, so that they form two bowls.
  4. Bake at 350F until the flesh is soft.  The cooking time varies according to the type and size of squash.  Check it periodically, and if the halves fill up with fluid, drain that into the sink.

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    Pumpkin halves filled with juice
  5. Let the squash cool completely.
  6. Drain any liquid that has accumulated.
  7. Use a spoon to scoop away the stringy innards.
  8. Start at one of the cut edges, and remove the peel in strips.
  9. Puree the flesh using a food processor, blender, or potato masher.

Now for the best part: the seeds!

You can roast and eat the seeds from all varieties of winter squash, not just pumpkins!  Don’t forget to save a few seeds for next year, unless you planted more than one variety of winter squash–in which case cross-pollination may have occurred.

  1. Place the seeds in a colander, and run them under cold water to rinse the bits of fleshy pulp off them.
  2. Spread them evenly on a lightly greased cookie sheet.
  3. Season with salt, or your favourite spices.
  4. Bake at 300F until the seeds begin to turn a light golden brown.
  5. Enjoy!

 

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Pumpkin + squash seeds = delicious

 

 

Growing vegetables and herbs indoors

This weekend, the garden was hit by a hard frost.  Most of its plants are done for the year, but that doesn’t mean an end to gardening.  If you have the space, there are a lot of vegetables and herbs that will flourish inside.

What you need:

  • A south-, southeast-, or southwest-facing window, in an area that has good air circulation and constant warm temperatures (no drafts).  Herb and vegetable plants need at least 6 hours of sunlight per day, so if you have a sunny windowsil that gets at least that much sun, you’re well on your way.  As the sunlight in winter is not as intense as the sunlight in the summer, you may need to supplement natural light with artificial light.  Shop lights will work in a pinch, if you don’t have grow lights.
  • Containers that are sufficiently large to contain the plant and its roots, with room to spare.  Plants grow more slowly indoors than out, so consider planting dwarf varieties (such as cherry tomatoes and mini carrots), so that you don’t need large containers, and you don’t have to wait as long to harvest.
  • A good quality potting soil, which ideally has been mixed with compost.  Although you can use garden soil, it tends to be too compact to allow proper drainage.  Without proper drainage, your plants’ roots may rot.
  • Seeds.  As mentioned above, choose varieties that mature quickly or produce small vegetables or fruits.  You can start seedlings from plants you’ve harvested, by planting the seeds straightaway instead of saving them for next year.  For example, when making tomato sauce, plant the seeds as you remove them from the tomatoes.

In some cases, you can extend the life of plants you started outdoors by bringing them inside for another few weeks or months.  In the past, I have dug up broccoli plants that were not quite mature, and enjoyed broccoli florets in December.  This year, due to a very wet summer, my eggplants were very late, so I dug up the best plants and brought them inside to see if they will produce.  I am also keeping alive the parsley, ginger, and oregano that were potted all summer.  One thing that you do need to be cautious of when bringing plants indoors is that they may bring pests, such as aphids, along.  You can wash them off using a spray bottle filled with water or insecticidal soup.

You may need to water your indoors plants more frequently than you would if they were outdoors, as indoor air–heated by a furnace–tends to be drying.  But, ensure you don’t overwater them either, as that can cause your plants to rot.

Here’s a list of plants that you can grow inside in the winter.  Greens and herbs are the easiest to grow; plants that produce fruit, such as peppers and tomatoes, may need supplemental lighting and staking.

  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Eggplants
  • Greens, such as lettuce, spinach, and kale
  • Herbs, such as basil,
  • Hot and sweet peppers
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes

 

 

 

 

Planting garlic

Garlic is the last plant that most gardeners sow.  It is planted around three weeks before the ground freezes.  This gives the cloves a chance to develop roots, but not tops (which cold weather destroys).

  1. Separate the head into cloves, being careful not to remove any of the peel.  This is accomplished by “cracking” the basal plate that holds the bulbs together at the roots.  Once this plate is separated, the cloves fall away.
  2. Sort the cloves by size.  Plant the largest, and set the rest aside for consumption.  Eat the smallest ones first, as they will not keep as long.
  3. Locate a spot in your garden that receives full sun, and in which the soil is well-drained.   Add mature compost to the soil.
  4. Sow cloves 2 inches down, 6-8 inches apart, and pointed side up/root side down.
  5. Cover the bed with a layer of mulch, if desired.  I cover mine with a light layer of leaves mixed with soil; by springtime the leaves have mostly disintegrated, adding nutrients back to the soil.

 

Grow your own popcorn

Colourful flint corn isn’t just eye candy; some varieties, such as glass gem corn, can be eaten as popcorn and cornmeal.

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Unfortunately, each colourful kernel is white inside

It’s best to let the cobs dry on the stalk, but if that’s not possible (or if you’re like me, and you picked them a bit early because you couldn’t wait any longer to see what they would look like), you can continue drying them inside.  Peel the husks back, leaving them attached to the ends of the cobs so that you tie them together.  Hang the cobs in a dry place for a few weeks, or, place them on a screen, and rotate them daily.

As the kernels begin to dry, they will shrink.  This makes it easier to remove them from the cob.  Place a pan beneath the cob, then grab one end in each hand, and twist each hand in the opposite direction, gently wrenching the cob.  The pressure should cause some kernels to pop out.  Once there are gaps in the rows of kernels, it’s easier to use your thumb to push the rest out.  Place the kernels in a wire basket to continue drying, shaking them around once a day.

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Blue glass gem kernels

To make popcorn on the stove, this method works well: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/perfect_popcorn/.  You can also, of course, use a conventional popcorn maker.  I just did a small test batch, since it was my first time trying the stovetop method, and got a few burned kernels.  Overall, the taste is superior to bought popcorn, though I may be a bit biased.

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Popcorn!

Many varieties of flint corn can also be ground into corn meal and corn flour.  To do so, run the kernels through a food processor, a blender, or a grinder specifically made for processing seeds and nuts.  Afterwards, sift the results.  You may be left with corn flour and corn meals of various textures.  The coarser grits below will be rerun through the grinder.

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Cornmeal / corn flour

Who says polenta and cornbread have to be yellow?  🙂

Plant of the week: Buttercup squash

Buttercup squash is rather plain on the outside, but cut it open and you are greeted with rich, sunny flesh that is delicious as is or in a variety of dishes.  Buttercup squash is a good source of phytochemicals, potassium, fibre, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, B and C.

Ideal growing conditions

Like most squashes, it needs full sun, and a lot of space to sprawl.  Dig holes about a foot wide and a few feet apart.  Fill each hole with compost and dirt until it forms a mound.

Start your seedlings inside, and move them outside only after the threat of frost has passed and the soil has warmed.  Be careful not to disturb the roots, as that may kill the plants.  Sow 2-3 plants in each mound.

(To increase germination rates, you can try soaking the seeds in water for a few hours before planting them, or growing them in-between sheets of wet paper towels and placing these towels in baggies over a warm heat vent).

Water the plants regularly, and ensure that the vines do not grow into the lawn where they are susceptible to damage by squash borers.  You may choose to train the vines to grow up trellises or fences.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Buttercup squash are ready when the skin is hard.  You may choose to cut away the vines near the fruit to help them ripen.

Harvest the squash before the frost.  Cut the stem about an inch away from the fruit.  The stub of the stem will help to prevent the fruit from drying out.  Let the fruit cure in the sunlight for up to a week, then move it to a cooler location to store.  It may keep for up to six months; check it frequently and use it before it begins to soften.

This squash may roasted, made into soups, added to casseroles, baked in breads, and more.  It can be used in many recipes as a substitute for pumpkin.  To bake it, I cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, then put both halves (cut side up) on a baking sheet and bake it at 350C until it’s soft.  To eat it as a side, scoop the flesh off the rind, mash it in a bowl, then add a bit of butter and nutmeg.

 

Friends

  • Beans
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Lettuce
  • Melons
  • Peas

Foes

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Avoid planting alongside other winter squash if you intend to save your seeds.  Pollinators may cross-pollinate the plants, resulting in strange hybrids growing from your seeds.

Fun facts

  • The first buttercup squash plant was discovered in 1925, as a chance cross between two other squash varieties.  It was selectively bred until 1931, when it was first released under the buttercup name

Bring Food Home Tours & Community Food Forest Planting Days

Upcoming Ottawa area events provided by Just Food

Come celebrate local businesses and food by taking one of the these tours packed with knowledge sharing, good food, and laughs on October 26, 2017.

Apple Cobbler Tour | 9:00 am – 4:30 pm | $10

Start at Against the Grain Farms with a discussion of artisanal grains and seed saving, visit Smyth Apple Orchard and the home of the MacIntosh apple, Upper Canada Creamery, a family-run, grass fed organic yogurt production facility and a new food-grade organic milling operation!

Click here to register: justfood.nationbuilder.com/bfhtours

Rebuilding the Local Value Chain | 9:00 am – 4:45 pm | $10

Learn about small-scale processing, incubator farms and kitchens, and the development of food hub value chains and regional sourcing of ingredients!

Click here to register: justfood.nationbuilder.com/bfhtours

Maple Syrup, Fine Cheese, and Beer-Swilling Pigs: The Artisanal Value Chain |9:00 am – 4:30 pm | $10

Learn about on-farm conservation projects, agri-tourism, craft production, and organic value chain development while visiting St. Albert Cheese Co-p, Sand Road Maple Farm, Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company and Pickle Patch farms!

Click here to register: justfood.nationbuilder.com/bfhtours

Walk, sample and learn! Downtown walking tour | 2:00 pm – 4:30 pm – free!

Take a walking tour and taste-test within Ottawa’s longest running farmers market while discussing agri-tourism development, contentious farmer branding, promotions, policies for urban agriculture and selling food in public spaces.

Contact info@justfood.ca to register.

Good Food in Schools | 1:00 pm – 4:00 pm – free!

Visit local schools and see Farm to School principles in action while sharing practices happening throughout Ontario. Join us and learn how municipal and provincial stakeholders are coming together to increase Good Food in schools.

Contact info@justfood.ca to register.

Community Food Forest Planting

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What to do with green tomatoes

When the forecast indicates that there’s a chance of frost, it’s time to cover your tomatoes, or pick them green and bring them inside.  But what to do with all of these green tomatoes?  Fried Green Tomatoes was a good movie (at the time, but who knows how well it’s aged), but as for the dish, it’s not something I personally enjoy in quantities befitting the mountain of green tomatoes I’ve picked.

Before you decide what to cook with your green tomatoes, you can remove and store the ones that have a chance of ripening:

  1. Wash and dry each tomato.
  2. Set aside the ones that are damaged or are quite undersized (for example, specimens that are cherry-tomato sized but meant to ripen to roma tomato size).  A hint: undersized tomatoes are often a darker green than their counterparts.  They likely won’t ripen.   Split or insect-damaged tomatoes will rot.
  3. Prepare a box for the undamaged, larger tomatoes.  Put a layer of newspaper on the bottom, then lay the tomatoes out on the paper, a couple of inches apart.  You may wrap them in the paper if you prefer.  It’s important to ensure that the tomatoes don’t touch each other.
  4. Repeat this to make a few layers of tomatoes, but not so many that they’re in danger of being crushed by the weight.
  5. Store the box is a cool, dry place.
  6. Check the tomatoes once or twice a week.  As the tomatoes begin to change colour and ripen, remove them from the box and put them on a sunny windowsill to ripen fully.  Remove and discard any tomatoes that begin to rot or wrinkle; wrinkly tomatoes will get rubbery and not ripen properly.   Over the course of the next few weeks or months, most of the tomatoes will ripen.  Though they are never as tasty as tomatoes fresh from the vine, they are still a nice fall/winter treat!

Now, what to do with all of those small or damaged green tomatoes?  How about salsa verde with green tomatoes instead of tomatillos, green tomato relish, or chili sauce?  I made this green tomato mincemeat today.  My dad always requests his mom’s green tomato chow recipe.  There’s also green tomato pie and green tomato cake!  Any other suggestions?

DIY vegetable stock

Vegetable stock is easy to make, and tastes so much better than store-bought varieties.  You can use vegetables you might otherwise not eat, such as carrot ends, squash peelings, and celery leaves.  Many stocks are made using onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, tomatoes, and garlic, as well as black pepper, bay leaves, and thyme.  Use other spices and herbs sparingly, as their flavours may be overpowering.  Avoid starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, which make the liquid cloudy, and vegetables that have strong or bitter flavours (such as brassicas).  Experiment with different recipes, based on your preferences, and what you have available.

To make vegetable stock

  1. Chop vegetables small, and brown them slightly.
  2. Add cold water.
  3. Gradually heat the mixture up until it almost boils.
  4. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour or so.
  5. Cool broth, then strain it through cheese cloth or a sieve.
  6. Use it immediately, or freeze it in small containers.