The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook (Workman Publishing, 2012) combines two books — a garden guide and a cookbook — in one. Authors Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman show you how to grow, harvest and store the very ingredients used in their recipes. In this excerpt taken from chapter 4, “The Crops,” find tips on growing squash and how to cook with them.
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Growing Squash: Summer Squash
Gardeners love to grow summer squash because they’re an easy crop and so productive. Most of them are bush types rather than vining ones, and can take their place in a plot where space is an issue. There are a number of different shapes, from good ol’ striped green zucchini, to the classic yellow crooknecks, to the pattypans (like little flying saucers) and spherical ones like Ronde de Nice. The edible blossoms are great for stuffing.
Grow. These are grown like any of the cucurbits. Although less space-consuming than squash that grow on long vines, individual plants are somewhat large and sprawling and need to be planted three feet apart. As they mature and their central stems elongate, they tend to sprawl into the paths. This can be avoided by succession planting, with fresh new transplants ready to go in around midsummer. Though you’ll need to weed around them at the start, the big leaves will eventually shade out most competing plants.
Harvest. Success with summer squash, as with many summer crops, depends on a good harvesting program. This is the season of abundance, when plants and their fruits grow quickly. Turn your back on the zucchini patch for a week, and you’ll find giant green submarines cruising beneath the broad leaves. I once tried stuffing one of these monsters with a rice and cheese concoction and yes, it was good eating, but not good enough to repeat often. Besides, big squash slow down the production of the small, tender ones that cooks prefer. Summer squash are particularly tasty when picked small, but they don’t have to be the dainty 2-inch babies you sometimes find on restaurant plates. Even a 10-inch zucchini or yellow crookneck tastes just fine, though we usually harvest our zucchini at no more than 6 inches long.
If you’re picking the flowers for cooking, do so first thing in the morning while they are wide open. Choose the males, which grow on long, slender stems, if you want to maximize your squash yield. (We leave the stems on to use as handles when we’re frying them.) If your goal is to practice squash birth control, harvest some of the female blossoms as well! They’re ones with the little bump of squash-to-be at the base of the flower.
Store. Kept cold, summer squash can last for at least a week if you’re saving up a quantity of them for an event or a special dish. If they get ahead of you, eat the freshest ones and compost or give away the rest. With summer squash there will always be more coming along.
Cook. Our favorite summer squash recipe is the simple quartet of zucchini, onions, butter, and herbs. Larger ones lend themselves to slicing into disks, which are then fried on both sides in butter or olive oil, and sprinkled with a little finely grated parmesan cheese. An Italian friend once taught my mother to stew them with onions and tomatoes. Add eggplant to that and it’s a French ratatouille. Just about any summer medley might include them: pasta with vegetables, a quick stir-fry, or a soup. The only trick is to use a light touch in cooking them, whatever their shape. Their centers always cook a bit faster than the outer parts, and after too much cooking a squash slice loses its structural integrity. Best to leave the outside a bit firm than to let the center turn to watery mush.
Growing Squash: Winter Squash
For a botanist there is no hard and fast difference between a squash and a pumpkin, nor for the cook as well. Both are fruits with very firm flesh and hard skins. They ripen in warm summer weather, and then are stored for future use. Even their bright colors, inside or out, warm up cold winter days. Sometimes I’ll keep a big, gorgeous red Rouge Vif d’Étampes squash on the kitchen counter just to enjoy the sight of it.
There is a wide variety of winter squash to choose from, in many shapes, sizes, and colors. An enormous Blue Hubbard squash is fine for a large family, or for canning, but might not be convenient otherwise. The dark-green-skinned acorn and buttercup types are popular in small households because you can cut one in half to make two individual servings. Little Delicata and Sweet Dumpling squash are smaller still. For all-around use, the plain beige butternut type is the most practical, with its delectable flesh and its handy clublike shape. And don’t hesitate to experiment with some of the heirloom squashes, in all their colorful variety. Pumpkins are divided into two general categories: the Halloween type, great for carving, but with watery, tasteless flesh; and the “pie” pumpkins, which are meaty and delicious for baking.
Grow. Squash can be sown directly or started ahead as transplants. In cold climates the latter is often wise, since they will need to mature before frost and some squash take quite a while to grow. A mulch can be helpful for keeping the fruits from rotting in moist weather, and for keeping the large expanse between plants weed-free. But weed removal can also be accomplished by hoeing, and before too long the leaves will blanket the ground.
If you’re determined to grow winter squash but don’t have enough room, there are a few creative solutions you can try. We’ve trellised the small ones such as buttercup by tying the stems to a lattice fence. We’ve planted a few in the compost pile and let the vines erupt there and trail down to the ground. And we’ve used the vines to cover a bare patch of ground where we would like to keep weeds from growing. If a squash vine escapes from the garden, you can always turn it around so that it heads back the way it came — or just let it take off through the fence and join the circus. As long as it’s in an area you don’t need to mow regularly, there’s no harm in it.
As the season starts to wind down and you don’t think the tips of the vines are going to form any more squash that will mature in time, you can snip off those ends so the plant will put its energy into ripening the ones that are well on their way.
Harvest. Unlike summer squash, winter ones do not have superior flavor at “baby size,” but rather after they have fully matured and developed their full complement of nutrients and flavor. Picked before frost, to escape cold damage, they usher in hearty fall and winter meals. Harvest them with a sharp knife after they’ve achieved their full coloration, leaving several inches of stem, but don’t use the stem as a handle to pick them up by. Treat the fruits carefully. They might look sturdy, but nicks and bruises will impair their keeping qualities.
If a light first frost sneaks up on you and touches the vines it will usually not affect the fruits’ keeping ability. If they are not fully mature, and you think a spell of weather warm enough to ripen them might follow, spread a tarp over the fruits, gathering them together with the vines intact, as needed. If this has happened to you often, you would do better with an earlier-ripening variety. On the other hand, if the fruits are ripe by first light frost, harvest them all and round up the vines for the compost pile. After picking, spread the squash out in a warm dry place to cure.
Store. Not only do winter squashes store very well through the winter, but they do it without the need for a root cellar. A cool, dry room is all you need. A temperature of around 50 degrees is ideal. If a huge squash overwhelms you, share it with friends, or cook it up and mash it, then can or freeze it. I have even cut a big one into wedges and frozen them, as is. Freezing affects their texture, but they still make a good soup.
Cook. A winter squash has an interior cavity filled with seeds that are discarded—unless you choose to roast them with salt and butter or oil, for snacking. (There are “naked seed” pumpkins with delicious, hull-less seeds, but their flesh is useless, so you really need to love pumpkin seeds to take the trouble to grow this kind.)
The skin of a winter squash or pumpkin is hard to peel when raw, but easy to slip off after cooking. If left on, the skin often comes in handy, forming a serving vessel. Acorn and buttercup squash may be baked with butter, honey, and nuts in their cavities and eaten right out of the skins.
Squash flesh is often a bit stringy, which is not a defect, but if you prefer it smooth and nearly stringless, Butternut squash is the one for you. Its bright orange flesh is among the most flavorful, and makes beautiful, velvety soups when pureed. I also like its long straight neck, perfect for slicing into disks for the Butternut Squash Rounds. And then there’s the spaghetti squash, which makes a virtue of all those strings, each one attached to a seed. Discard the seeds, bake or boil the squash, and then fork out the spaghetti-like strands. They are crunchy, mild, and delicious.
Reprinted with permission from The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook by Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman and published by Workman Publishing, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.