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: 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

Stages of plant growth: Cucurbitaceae

In a previous post, we mentioned that we would illustrate the lifecycles of various vegetable plants.  We’ll start with the Cucurbitaceae family.

Here’s a few plants that have sprouted their primary leaves.   They look pretty similar except for the size of their leaves–and the acorn squash’s leaf is a bit more pointed and veinier than the others.

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Cantaloupe, spaghetti squash, and acorn squash

The cucumber seedlings look similar too, which isn’t surprising, since they all emerged from a similar type and shape of seed, which you can see still attached to the leaves on the right.

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Cucumbers

But what about this?  The birds planted this one.

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Sunflower

We’ll update this post once the plants have their secondary leaves, and start to look a little different from each other.

Growing vegetables in hot, dry conditions

Following are some tips on how to encourage a productive garden during a hot, dry summer:

  • Choose varieties that mature quickly and produce smaller fruit.
  • Lay your garden out so that plants that need similar amounts of water are grouped together.  Raised beds retain more water than open beds.
  • Plant in groupings or hexagonal offset patterns rather than rows so that the leaves can provide shade.  Space plants 1.5 to 2 times further apart than usually recommended to provide plants with access to a larger area from which to draw moisture.
  • Sow tall plants, such as corn and tomatoes, on the south side of heat-intolerant plants such as leafy greens, to provide them with shade and lower the temperature.
  • Add large amounts of organic compost to the soil; this helps trap moisture and encourages deep roots.
  • Apply a thick layer of mulch to the soil to prevent moisture loss and keep the soil cooler.  This will also help prevent the growth of weeds, which compete with your plants for water.  You can use natural materials such as grass clippings, straw, dried leaves, pine needles, or shredded bark.
  • Water plants heavily when they are very young, and producing blossoms or fruit.  During other times, they can do with less water. Use drip hoses, which direct water into the soil, rather than spraying the plants from overhead where it is wasted on the leaves.  Water in late evening and early morning.
  • You can place shade cloth over the south sides of eggplant, pepper, and tomato plants.  This will reduce the temperature by 5-15 degrees and may prevent sunscald.  Plants like peppers and eggplants may produce less during a drought, but they will still produce.

Avoid planting these vegetables

Vegetables like peas, brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, etc.), and leafy greens like cold weather, so they won’t do well in the heat of summer.  You can try planting them in the early spring or late fall, when the heat is less extreme.

Do try these drought-tolerant vegetables

  • Amaranth
  • Artichokes – Jerusalem and globe
  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Chard
  • Chickpeas (I made the mistake of overwatering these and they started to germinate in the shell!)
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Cowpeas
  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplant
  • Endive
  • Garlic
  • Leeks
  • Melons
  • Mustard greens
  • Okra
  • Onions
  • Oregano
  • Peppers
  • Rhubarb
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Savory
  • Squash
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Thyme
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon, especially the sugar baby variety

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

From the side dish to the main course

Recent studies have shown that the ideal diet is one that is rich in vegetables and fruits.  The benefits to our health increase if we go beyond the traditional options, such as carrots, potatoes, and beans, and eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.  No one plant contains all of the nutrients we need, so it’s best to mix it up, and enjoy a rainbow of colours, textures, and types.

Health benefits

The benefits are widespread:

A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can lower blood pressure, reduce risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and have a positive effect upon blood sugar which can help keep appetite in check. (source)

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that dietary patterns emphasizing fruits and vegetables may be linked to better psychological health.[i] A recent study found that higher fruit and vegetable consumption may increase well-being, curiosity and creativity, possibly related to micronutrients and carbohydrate composition.[ii] This is probably related to the fact you are giving your body and brain more healthy vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber. (source)

Meatless Monday

The Meatless Monday campaign, which started in 2003, encourages participants to abstain from meat on Mondays as a way to improve their health and that of the planet.  Why not expand this campaign to your garden, and try to grow a favourite vegetable, or something new, and use it as a centrepiece for your Monday meals?

Fun vegetables to grow

Here are some suggestions for interesting and healthy vegetables to try:

  • Rainbow chard is rich in vitamins.  There are many ways to cook it, or you can enjoy it in salads.  You can use it as a replacement for recipes that call for cooked spinach.
  • Sweet potatoes are extremely high in vitamin A and rich in fibre.  They are delicious baked and in soups.
  • Beets are versatile.  You can eat the greens or the beetroots themselves, or grate them and add them to cake.  They come in a variety of colours, like red, gold, and white.  They’re high in folates, iron, and other minerals.
  • Kale, like most green vegetables, is high in iron.  It likes the cold weather and doesn’t mind a little snow.
  • Eggplants/aubergines are often used as replacements for meat.  There are several varieties to choose from.
  • Winter squash are great in soups, casseroles, or as side dishes.  You can grow them in many colours and unusual shapes.
  • Ground cherries taste like a combination between pineapples and strawberries.  They can be eaten fresh or used in preserves, pies, and other sweet treats.

More resources

Information on plant-based proteins.