Archive for the ‘squash’ category

now and later

May 8, 2013

When I begin laying out my garden each year, I’m mentally grouping the vegetables into four families: nightshades, cucurbits, legumes, and….other random stuff. Plants belonging to one family tend to have similar nutritional needs; they also share susceptibility to some of the same diseases and pests. Keeping kin together and rotating them to a different section of the garden each year is a way to keep everyone healthier without resorting to chemicals. So I try to end up with more-or-less-equal square footage for each of these categories.

But before that, back in seed-ordering season, I’m thinking about different groupings: now and later. The now vegetables are the reason I started gardening: the luscious tomatoes that can barely contain their own juices, the delicate greens that are best when cut moments before being dressed simply and served. I once thought I’d never get enough of these things–and in deep winter, when the catalogs arrive (seed merchants know what they’re doing) I still think that. But after a couple of years I found myself getting just as excited about preserving projects. And once you go there, it’s a short step to excess. (If you’re firing up the canner anyway, why bother with a few measly half-pints? Send the jumbo pack of beet seeds, please!)

But there is another category of later, one that has become more appealing as my garden has gotten bigger:  the “later” vegetables that keep with little help from me, like potatoes, winter squash, shell beans. Last year I felt very smart for planting lots of these (in the nightshade, cucurbit, and legume sections, respectively).

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All winter long, I’ve been enjoying the fruits of my labor. So, you’d think I’d be nearing the end but…you’d be wrong. While I’m not yet to the point where I’m tired of eating butternuts, it is getting to be time for the “food storage room” to be a “guest room” again. A few days ago, I roasted as many  as would fit in my oven.IMG_1618

These became:

– A curry-ish stew, made with a mysterious and magical spice blend (bought in Oman), plus onions, ginger, brown rice, dandelion greens, cilantro

– A couple of bags of squash puree for the freezer (which will probably be turned into something like the above)

– Squash gnocchi, again for the freezer

– Roasted squash seeds with cayenne, cumin and a touch of honey

All of these things are good, but they do not compare with the transformation achieved last night. I went to visit a friend in the next village and brought her a nice-looking specimen, plus a few storage failures to feed her goats.

She, in turn, sent me home with some just-snapped asparagus spears from her own garden.

Talk about transformation! I ate about half of them on the drive home. When I got home, I tossed some leftover rice with lemon, chives and feta, then topped with sosofresh sautéed asparagus and a fried egg.IMG_1654

Category: now.

 

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pickle me this

September 10, 2011

All summer long my friends and I have been embalming lovely fresh produce in vinegar and/or sugar syrup and then subjecting the jars to a boiling water bath* to kill anything that might still be alive.

Humans have been pickling food for thousands of years, but my generation seems to be just rediscovering these frugal-yet-hedonistic techniques. We buy cookbooks from nouveau homesteaders based in places like Williamsburg and Charlotte, NC. We follow modern FDA guidelines — and then some — for safe handling, carefully processing either high-acid or sugar saturated mixtures, and we put together exotic ingredients our forebears never thought of. Don’t get me wrong — I am definitely enjoying strawberry preserves with rosewater, plum noir with cardamom, and spicy squash with cumin (that’s right, in Otsego County, whole cumin is still an exotic — after failing to find it in the four stores within a 15-mile radius, I finally got lucky at the Oneonta Hannaford).

Still, the whole idea behind preserving is about, well, preserving what you have. And I kept coming across these descriptions of old-fashioned lacto-fermentation. In this technique, vegetables are placed in cool salt water, where they wait for microbial organisms naturally present on their skins to ferment and transform them into something delicious.

Yum? We super-sanitary Americans have an uncomfortable relationship with the microscopic creatures with which the air and water teems. And that’s before reading about the mat of mold that periodically needs to be scraped off the top of the bubbling mixture. Still, I was intrigued. I was intrigued by the descriptions of the taste, said to be less sharp than that of vinegar-cured pickles. But more than that I remain intrigued by the idea of food made exclusively from the sun and soil and air — and microbes — present on my little half-acre.

So a couple of weeks ago I filled a crock with wedges of cucumber, yellow squash and green tomato, plus a bunch of dill and a few slivers of horseradish, poured over the brine, and forgot about it.

Well, that’s not true. I also worried a little. While I’m a firm believer that American kids don’t eat enough dirt, and that all this hand sanitizer is actually making us a lot less healthy, botulism is no joke. The fact that I live alone made it all the scarier — I could see myself, drooling, half-paralyzed by the deadly neurotoxin, trying unsuccessfully to reach the phone while Bob mewed worriedly from the stairwell.

So I did what any self-respecting homesteader would have done: I order some pH test strips from Amazon.com.

When I removed the lid from the crock, the sight might have made me sick — if it didn’t smell so good. Here is a picture of the brining pickles, along with their lovely furry hat.

In case you are not sufficiently repulsed, here’s a close-up of the scum.

Botulism cannot survive in pH lower than 4.6, though, and the pH test gave a reading somewhere around 3 — very safe. Also delicious!

*Pickle Trivia: According to the NY Food Museum, we have Napoleon (yes, that one) to thank for the boiling water bath. He valued pickles as a health asset for his armies, so much so that he offered the equivalent of $250,000 to anyone who could develop a way to preserve food safely. The man who won the prize in 1809 was a confectioner named Nicholas Appert, who figured out that if you removed the air from a bottle and boiled it, the food wouldn’t spoil. He’d have to wait for Pasteur to describe why by making the bottle airtight, no microorganisms could enter, and by boiling it, any microorganisms that existed were killed. Known today as the “boiling water bath,” Appert’s discovery was one of the most influential culinary contributions in history.

But who needs it?

abundance

July 22, 2011

Living mostly from one’s own garden is partially an exercise in doing without. But addicted as I once was to my Granny Smith a day, it hasn’t been so hard to trade the petroleum apple for whatever is freshest at a given moment. I’m finding that it’s more challenging, actually, to live well with the daily abundance, to enjoy what the earth offers today without worrying too much about tomorrow.

I brought in my first zucchini (and a few other things) a couple of mornings ago. I picked them quite small, which felt a little wasteful — another day or two in the sun and I would have doubled my food supply, for free. And there is always the prospect of an impromptu dinner — I find myself hesitating to bring in, say, a giant helping of lovely baby arugula for myself, because how will I add interest to tomorrow night’s salad otherwise?

But those tender tonic leaves, while precious, aren’t like the jar of balsamic vinegar one keeps on the shelf for special guests. Set to the side, young arugula only disappears into a tougher version of itself, simultaneously fierce and faded. Better to mow down half the patch for your breakfast and leave the rest to go to seed while you eat something else. The cycle will begin again soon enough. I know this intellectually, but every year my desire to hold on to the fruits of my labors, to save them for a special occasion, has caused me to lose some of them altogether.

Zucchini won’t be exciting for long, but after months of leaves, these first young fruits — along with a few handfuls of beans and peas — are to be savored. Right away. What occasion is more special, after all, than this moment of perfect deliciousness?

what [plants] want

June 26, 2011

Friday night I actually escaped work early enough to have dinner at home, but I found myself too tired — not too tired to cook, but too tired to eat. My intestines recoiled at the thought of digesting that last serving of  roasted beets/walnuts/arugula waiting in the fridge. I mentally tried on the idea of something simpler — say pasta with olive oil — but my salivary glands were unresponsive. And a lovely fresh salad from the garden — well, that seemed like a whole lot of chewing. I was tempted to just go to bed, but Saturday was the day off and I didn’t want to be prematurely pulled out of bed by an rumbling stomach. After pondering a bit longer, I knew what I wanted: a few walnuts, a couple of leaves of wild arugula, and a length of garlic scape pounded in some olive oil, eaten with the last of the bread.

Saturday morning I made a quick trip to the farmers’ market and then put on my grubby gardening clothes to see what I could do for this year’s garden tenants. Barbara Damrosch, in The Garden Primer, talks about thinking like a plant, learning to give them what they want. “Once you understand what makes plants tick,” she writes, “you’ll understand what you need to do to help them grow well.”

One thing young plants want is a space clear of competition. Weeding is never-ending, and I have to confess, I kind of like it. Last month, with renovations on my kitchen way behind schedule, I took my rage out to the garden, patiently wresting the long, hairy roots from the soil. I really should have been attacking the layer of carpentry dust that covered everything in the house, but it seemed so pointless, with the work not done yet. Why waste my time washing dishes in a construction site when I could be clearing the soil for my summer grocery store?

Except: even if I possessed the skill, determination and luck to get every last dandelion completely out, down to the tip of its taproot — and I don’t — a soft breeze across the downy heads left in my neighbor’s yard will soon sully the soil again. In the garden, there is no such thing as finished. And the same thing is true in making a home.

The renovations are down to the last details now, and I’m able to keep the house pretty clean, but some part of me has continued to resist really inhabiting it — I’ve been waiting for the installation of those shelves, the arrival of that last piece of furniture before I finally put everything in its place.

One day last week, a couple of hours into a really thorough job of weeding the legume section, I made the mistake of allowing myself to take in the entire garden, rather than the single plant I squatted next to. Completely overwhelming. The only way to avoid despair was to bring my focus back to plant-by-plant hospitality — pulling weeds, pinching suckers, training tendrils to wrap around supports. I didn’t do any of these jobs perfectly, but I knew the plants were going to be much healthier — and more productive — because of my efforts.

Something about the work of tuning in to the needs of my little green tenants made me more attentive to my own requirements. When I was through in the garden, I went inside and moved a small chest across from the kitchen sink to stand in for the island that will not arrive for weeks.

Having that workspace — temporary and imperfect though it may be — has transformed my ability to operate in the kitchen. Yesterday, during a late morning rainstorm, I came in from the garden and worked on putting together meals for the next few days. I started out by roasting beets and fennel from the morning’s market. Since the oven was on, I threw in the last of 2010’s butternut squash (time to clear the pantry and begin making way for 2011).

I usually make squash stew with ginger and all kinds of sweet, warming spices. Since I didn’t have any ginger — and since I wanted something a little more green and summery — I dug up a small piece of horseradish from the garden and ground that to a paste along with some of last year’s coriander harvest, a garlic scape, a mint leaf, and a healthy pile of black peppercorns. I also made the stew somewhat thinner than usual, ending up with a soup that was both sweet and bracing. Somewhere along the way I toasted the seeds and tossed them with the beets and fennel for a salad of many textures. After a good night’s sleep and a day of work in the garden, my stomach was ready for it. Just what I wanted.

raiding the pantry

January 6, 2011

It’s taken me awhile to figure it out, but now I know: eating well in winter is more about planning than canning. Shell beans, winter squash, potatoes, garlic go from the ground to the pantry with no processing required. So I planted lots of them. This December, I spent more time in Roseboom than anywhere else, so it was a great opportunity to enjoy the fruits of my labors.  

I. Spicy peanut-squash stew. Hack a giant squash in two and set it to roast in the oven, along with a head or two of garlic, anointed with oil and wrapped in foil. On the stove, soften chopped onions and garlic in olive oil, then add spices (I used cumin, coriander, cayenne) and toast a bit. Scoop in some peanut butter, plus maybe a little water, and stir until melted; turn off heat. Squish the roasted garlic into the pot. When the squash is manageable, peel and chop into cubes. Add these to the pot, along with enough water to get the consistency you want. At this point you can puree into an elegant bisque-like creation (maybe add some cream or coconut milk) but I prefer a chunky, inelegant stew. It is especially good with brown rice added, but all I had was crushed wheat, and that worked pretty well. Something green added just before serving is always a good idea, and I was able to dig some kale out of the snow—at least the for the first few servings.

II. Black beans, brown beer, purple potatoes. I once read a recipe for black beans cooked in dark beer until the beans were soft and the beer reduced to a syrup. With company expected for dinner, I needed to stretch the recipe a bit, so while the beans simmered in Ommegang I sauteed onions in oil, followed by spices, then added water and some chopped purple potatoes. (Regular potatoes would work as well, but they take on an unappetizing gray color in black bean soup.) Combined the pots, added some garlic, and voila: a nice hearty supper. I also chopped up some of last summer’s dried tomatoes, added them to warm olive oil, and served on homemade bread provided by my guests.

III. Extravagant lentils. Sometime in January, my kitchen is going to be gutted. So this business of cooking from the existing larder is not just about feeding myself and avoiding the trip to the market. It’s also about spending down the stores before I have to move the contents of my kitchen into the living room. This makes me feel a lot better about decimating supplies of luxury ingredients like dried porcini mushrooms. I put them into a stew of lentils, roasted garlic, celery, and leftover red wine.

IV. Bean, tangerine…  Cook chopped-up tangerine (with peel) and onion until carmelized,then throw in some chopped ginger and red pepper flakes. Add squash seeds and cook til toasted. Green beans can go straight from the freezer to pot.

V. Nightshade elixir. Ground cherries were this year’s garden discovery. They look like small tomatillos and taste something like a tomato crossed with a pineapple. Starting in August, my one plant threw off a handful or two of ripe fruit every day. Just before the frost hit, I picked it clean, gathering more than 700 full pods, some more ripe than others. I put them in jars with vodka and honey. I’ve read that this kind of preparation should sit for six months, but I threw caution to the wind served them in shot glasses following a recent dinner. They taste like strawberries.

VI. Cornmeal mush. I’m glad the Quaker company has retained the traditional name for the most basic recipe on its cardboard canister. The Italian title may be more musical, but cornmeal mush is good enough for me. I had it for breakfast with butter and maple syrup, for lunch (after a freak thaw revealed perky greens under the snow) with kale and carmelized onions.

VII. Something Asian….ish. On New Year’s Day, my friends up the road host a party in their sweet little straw house. Guests are asked to bring an Asian dish to share. I had a few relevant ingredients on hand—a lime, ginger root, coconut, sesame seeds—but I couldn’t figure out how these might combine with the other ingredients in my winter pantry. So I mixed them up with an egg and some sugar and made macaroons.

squashed

August 11, 2010

Squash is not a vegetable I’ve ever sought out. I plant it mostly because I like to throw impromptu dinner parties and it’s nice to have a reliable source of abundant, fresh foodstuff. But abundance has its challenges, especially when it comes to something you don’t lovelovelove. Over the last couple of years I’ve developed a few strategies for overcoming squash’s cool blandness–searing it on the grill, burying it underneath a blizzard of herbs, drowing it in a curry, etc. 

Maybe I’m beginning to develop a new appreciation for the subtleties of squash. Or maybe the string of sultry days is having its effect on my appetite. Either way, a dish of plain steamed squash now seems like heaven. 


A dollop of plain yogurt, olive oil, chives and mint helps.

Still, I continue to look for new ways to serve squash to unsuspecting dinner- and house-guests. A couple of days ago I made an amazing squash-coriander loaf. The recipe, adapted from How to Cook Everything, made enough batter for a few muffins as well. I had some leftover grated squash, so I improvised a squashcake: about a cup of squash, an egg, a spoonful of flour, herbs. Squashcake with a squashmuffin and a handful of fresh tomatoes: that’s what I call breakfast!

next!

April 2, 2010

Planting season is almost upon us, and it’s a good thing, because I just used up the last squash of 2009.

The best way to deal with hard squash is to hack them into a few chunks, remove the seeds, the throw the chunks into the oven until they soften a bit; then it’s easy to slide a small knife between skin and flesh. After I did this, I cut the squash (two butternut) into chunks of about 1/2 inch or so and threw them in a pot with one can coconut milk, one can water, a pile of chopped ginger, a chopped jalapeno, a medium-sized thwack of peanut butter, and some salt. As it heated, it occurred to me that the mixture could use a little chew and something to balance the sweetness, so I added some brown rice. Once the rice was cooked, I finished the stew with zest and juice of one lime plus a bunch of chopped cilantro.

Bring on the zucchini!