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

 

 

Plant of the week: Pumpkins

It’s always sad to see so many pumpkins discarded each year on November 1st.  They’re not just jack o’lantern canvases; they’re delicious and nutritious vegetables!  Pumpkins are a great source of vitamins A and C, some of the B vitamins, fiber, and potassium.  They also contain carotenoids and special types of carbohydrates that are believed to play a role in preventing cancer, improving immune function, and helping to regulate insulin, among other benefits.

 

Ideal growing conditions

Pumpkins are heavy feeders that need warm, well-drained, loamy soil that is rich in aged manure and compost.  They prefer full sun but will grow in partial shade.  Start them inside, then move them outside after all threat of frost has passed.  Planting them in mounds may help ensure that the soil remains warm.  They need a lot of space (mounds must be 4-8 feet apart), so if you do not have much space, try planting them at the edge of the garden and then letting the vines grow out of the garden or up a trellis (for smaller vining varieties).  Pumpkins need a lot of water, but try not to get their leaves wet, as that can cause fungal diseases.

Pumpkins produce both male and female flowers.  First, the male flowers appear, then the female flowers.  The latter are open for only one day; these will produce pumpkins if pollinated.   After a few pumpkins have formed, you may want to pinch off the fuzzy ends of each vine to encourage the plant to concentrate on growing the pumpkins rather than extending its reach.  If you get a lot of flowers but no fruit, you need more bees (or you can pollinate the plants yourself with a soft brush).

Some varieties of pumpkins can be grown in very large containers.

 

Types

  • Miniature pumpkins are actually gourds.  They’re inedible, and used for decoration.
  • Pie pumpkins are small pumpkins that are best suited for eating.  They have firm flesh that is less stringy and wet than jack o’lantern pumpkins.
  • Jack o’lantern pumpkins are used for carving, though you can eat them too.
  • Giant pumpkins are grown exclusively for their size.
  • Pumpkins also come in other colours than orange and white, such as blue-green and patterned orange and green.

Pumpkin plants may be compact or develop extensive vines.  Choose a variety that suits your space.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

Unless a hard frost threatens your plants, it’s best to harvest your pumpkins when they are fully ripe (orange), by cutting the stem with a sharp knife.  If you try to tear the stem from either the pumpkin or the vine, you might damage one or the other (the vines are extremely delicate).  Cure pumpkins in the sun for a week or two to toughen the skin, then store them in a cool, dry place.

Pumpkins are great in soup, cakes, breads, muffins, pies, and more.  To cook a pumpkin, I prefer to cut it in half, scoop out the seeds, then bake each half and peel it after it has cooled.  The seeds are salted and placed on a cookie sheet, then roasted.  Yum!

Friends

  • Corn
  • Potatoes

Foes

  • Beans

Fun facts

  • What is sold as canned pumpkin is usually canned squash!
  • The green pumpkin seeds that you see in the store are from a variety of pumpkins that produces hull-less seeds (pepitas).

The great zupumpkin!

In one of my first small gardens, I planted a pumpkin plant and a zucchini plant next to each other.  I didn’t save any of their seeds, but the next year, when I spotted a pumpkin plant coming up from the compost, I let it grow.  It started out looking like a bit like an elongated pumpkin or some sort of squash.  Then it ripened to the above specimen, which was christened the zupumpkin.

Cross-pollination

Cross-pollination occurs when an insect or the wind carries pollen from one variety of plant to another.  The resulting seed, when planted, sprouts a hybrid of its parents.  Since zucchini and pumpkins are both varieties of the same species, they can create the zupumkin (or zumption or pumcchini–your choice) but a cucumber and squash can’t procreate because they’re different species.

Cross-pollination does not affect the current year’s crop, but rather the next year–with one exception: corn.  If the pollen from the tassels of one variety of corn are blown into the silks from another variety, the cob that develops is a hybrid.

Self-pollinating plants

Vegetables like beans, peas, peanuts, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, and tomatoes are self-pollinating. Their seeds will produce plants like the parent, but insects will occasionally cross them, so if you want to be absolutely certain that your seeds will grow true to type, plant each variety at least 10 feet apart.

Insect- and wind-pollinated plants

Vegetables that are pollinated by insects or wind need to be separated by variety, and grown a distance apart (the distance varies with each type of plant).   To ensure that your seeds grow true to type, grow one variety of each type, or separate the different varieties.

Vegetables that willingly cross-breed

The following plants or plant families are prone to cross-pollination.  If you are planting them with the intention of keeping their seeds, keep varieties well separated.

  • Beets and Swiss chard
  • Cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and broccoli
  • Corn
  • Cucumbers
  • Honeydew, cantaloupe, and other melons, excluding watermelons
  • Peppers (hot and sweet)
  • Squash (some varieties)
  • Zucchini and pumpkins