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Give Winter Squash Some Love

by Engrid WinslowPhoto of two golden butternut squash.

Now that the nip of fall is finally in the air it is time to celebrate the coming harvest of winter squash.  Winter squashes include the beloved Butternut as well as Sweet Dumpling, Delicata, Spaghetti, Hubbard, Long Island Cheese, Pumpkins and so many more varieties. The squash should be harvested before the first hard freeze but a light frost will actually sweeten the sugars in the squash fruit. The stems should be fairly dry and the fruit unblemished. If there are any squishy spots, just eat those right away but the others can be stored for up to six months.  The fruit should feel heavy and dense and your fingernail should not pierce the flesh when pressed against it. Cut the squash from the vine so that there is at least a 2” stem and then let them cure at room temperature for a week or two.  After they have cured they should be stored in a cool dry place such as a basement or garage where they will not freeze.

 

Winter Squashes are rich in fiber and vitamins and low in calories but they are also so hearty that they are great for meatless meals.  To my mind, the best way to eat most of them is roasted with olive oil, salt and pepper but let’s not forget pies and casseroles with warm winter spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.  The seeds can also be roasted for a delicious and nutritious snack.

 

Many years ago this recipe for Butternut Squash Risotto in Cooks Illustrated  Italian Favorites that I have tweaked and played with to come up with one of my most beloved recipes.  It gets the center starring role at least once a month during the winter season for its comforting warmth. It seems like a lot of work but this is one that is worth every minute.

 

 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO

                Serves 4-6

 

Adapted from Cooks Illustrated Italian Favorites 2009

 

 

2 TBL olive oil

6 TBL butter

2 LB butternut squash, peeled, de-seeded and cut into ½” cubes which should yield 3-4 cups

  NOTE: Reserve seeds, fibers, peels and any extra bits of squash for use later

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup water

1-2 small onions, minced

2 cups Arborio (Carnaroli can be substituted)

1 ½ cups white wine such as Pinot Grigio that you will also drink with your dinner

1 cup grated Parmesano-Reggiano

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 TBL minced fresh sage leaves

¼ tsp grated nutmeg

Salt and pepper to taste

 

In a large non-stick skillet, sauté the squash over medium-high heat with olive oil until cubes are nicely browned.  Season with salt and pepper, remove from pan and set aside.  Add reserved squash peels, seeds, etc. to pan and cook, stirring to break up the fibers as much as possible until brown.  Place chicken stock and water in a saucepan with reserved, cooked bits of squash, bring to a low boil and reduce heat to a bare simmer.

Place 4 tablespoons of butter in the empty skillet over medium heat and let melt before adding onion, garlic and additional salt and pepper. Cook and stir often until onions are softened.  Add rice and stir until grains are a bit translucent around the edges (about 3-4 minutes).  Add white wine and cook, stirring until it is fully absorbed.  Add 3 cups of liquid (avoiding stems and other bits – Strain if desired but press the solids to get as much flavor from them as possible) and a half of the cubed squash to the pan. After the liquid is completely absorbed and the pan is nearly dry, continue adding liquid about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly until liquid is absorbed before adding another ½ cup. Taste the rice for al dente and then stir in the rest of the squash, sage, nutmeg, parmesan and remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.  Add additional liquid if you prefer a looser risotto and sprinkle additional parmesan on the top.  Serve with the same white wine you used to cook your risotto.

 

You can add other things such as spinach, sweet peas and cooked chicken to this recipe if desired.

Roasted Winter Vegetables

January Recipe

from the kitchen of Engrid Winslow

Roasted Winter Vegetables

 

Even though your garden is sleeping, you can still enjoy this seasonal recipe.

  1. Preheat oven to 425
  2. Dice or chop equal amounts of the following:

Potatoes

Beets (chop a bit smaller because they take longer to reach doneness)

Butternut Squash

Parsnips

Onions

  1. Spread in an even layer on a baking sheet large enough that they roast instead of steaming. Toss with some olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 30-45 minutes, stirring at least once.

 

Variations:

  • Substitute or add other vegetables such as carrots, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, turnips, sweet potatoes, kabocha, acorn, delicata or other winter squash.
  1. Drizzle with balsamic before serving.
  1. Add pumpkin seeds during last 20 minutes of roasting.
  1. Add dabs of goat cheese while still warm but not too hot.
  1. Add fresh sprigs of thyme or rosemary

Expand Your Vegetable Garden the Easy Way

by Sandy Swegel

Two forces collided around the kitchen table this week.  First I was oogling our seed catalog and indulging in winter snow day daydreams about summer gardens and how I might turn my tiny urban yard into a farm so I could grow one of everything. At that moment I wanted to be surrounded by beautiful shiny vegetables. Then the second force came.  I went grocery shopping for my favorite winter recipe:  a very simple roasted winter vegetable dish with squash and sweet potatoes and beets, marinated in olive oil and rosemary. Yum. The winter squash was even on sale.  Then sticker shock hit. A single large winter squash was $5, even on sale!

The force of wanting to buy more seed collided with the force of not wanting to pay retail prices for food.  The only natural outcome is I have to find more space to garden so I can plant more squash.

It’s too late for any of the summer or fall garden expansion methods of either tilling in land or doing some lasagna gardening.  So I will use the easy method my urban farmer friend Barbara taught me.  Out in a neglected corner of the yard where there’s just some old grass, I’ll dig a shallow hole next May and fill it to an overflowing mound with a bucket of compost.  I’ll plant squash seeds there and cover the surrounding grass with cardboard.  The squash plants will grow over the cardboard as it takes another year to make good garden soil underneath.  I can drape the burgeoning squash plants over the fence and maybe up an old ladder onto the shed roof. (I did mention the tiny yard, didn’t I?)  But the key to expanding my garden this way is that I’m not doing all the heavy work of putting in a new 10 x 10 garden bed for squash.  The squash roots and cardboard are going to help do that.  My yield won’t be as high this year as a full amended composted garden, but then the work will be almost nothing to grow a lot of $5 squash for the price of $1.89 seed packet.

The key to baking yummy winter vegetables is to cut them in 1-1/2 inch pieces, marinate them in olive oil, salt and rosemary, and bake them on flat cookie sheets.  The flat baking sheet is crucial to the outcome because then the sides of the vegetable get a nice crisp roasted texture.  Here’s a more formal recipe:

Recipe:  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-winter-vegetables-recipe/index.html

When the Garden Stops Making Free Food!

by Sandy Swegel

The hard freeze is upon us here in Colorado.  We’re scurrying to save and process the last of the harvest.  Counters are full of green tomatoes. Winter squash line the shelves of the mudroom. But fresh organic food coming in from the garden is dwindling.  The time of buckets of lemon cucumbers in the walkway is over. (How does that plant produce so much fruit?) Despite good intentions of growing most of our own food, it is time to return to regular shopping at the grocery store.

Paying for food after getting all those zucchinis for free all summer can be a little depressing—especially if you end up paying $1.50 for a tiny little zucchini. For a while, I thought I was just getting old and turning into my Depression-baby grandmother who always complained about things being so expensive.  Even though she had money in the bank and a good social security check coming, later in life she took to having just two little chicken wings for dinner. That’s what I felt like going shopping this week as I bought just one onion, one squash and two pears when I went shopping.  Prices seemed so high.

Turns out prices really are high.  It’s not reported much on the news, but the cost of living is increasing and food prices are worse than the general economy. Since 2006, the consumer price index has risen 14% but the price of food has gone up 20% in the past six years.  Ouch.

So what do you do?  Besides planting even more vegetables and fruit next year, you have to watch what you buy. And you need to remember to keep buying organic produce even though it is relatively more expensive.

Prices are higher now than when you bought groceries last winter. But don’t compensate by eating pesticide-contaminated food.  The Environmental Working Group puts out a list every year of the foods that have the most pesticides even after they have been thoroughly washed.  They call the worst ones the “Dirty Dozen.”  Most of our staple foods are on the dirty list:  apples, celery, kale (!), cucumbers, and zucchini.  If you do have to save money this winter and buying non-organic food seems the only way to go, at least choose foods least likely to be full of pesticides…the items on their “Clean Fifteen” list.

And grow more food next summer!

Dirty Dozen: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ Data on food prices:  http://www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves/2013-august/price-inflation-for-food-outpacing-many-other-spending-categories.aspx#.Um5XtvmsgWc

After the Hail

by Sandy Swegel

“Gardening in Colorado sucks” is how my friend described her garden after a violent storm full of hail and tornadoes passed through the towns east of Boulder this week.  Much more vivid expletives were used by all as we surveyed the destruction brought by 2-1/2 inches of rain in less than a half hour and hail that had to be cleared by snow plows.  We were actually quite lucky.  Tornado sirens were going off all over town, but there weren’t many touchdowns.

But the garden is devastated.  Well, let me correct that. The xeric plants are doing fine.  They are thin-leaved and flexible and have adapted to millennia of hail on the high plains. Russian sage and grasses and Liatris look great. Cactus definitely didn’t care.  But the plants we love in our yards: the roses and deciduous trees had their leaves shredded by the hail and broken by the winds.  Thank God we don’t rely on our vegetable gardens as our only source of food.  Corn was broken, squash stems were ripped and shredded.  The zucchini has so many stems and leaves, it will survive, but we can forget winter squash and watermelons and pumpkins.

So what can a gardener do after hail? We cowered in our houses as tornado sirens wailing “Get to shelter immediately.” Unlike Dorothy and Auntie Em in the tornado shelter, we were in furnished basements with our wireless devices googling for webcams of what was going on outside. But once we emerged, the response was pretty much the same.  “Holy xxxx”

After the storm, gardeners have to take it easy.  Remove the huge broken branches to the curb. Clean up fallen leaves.  Get your roof patched.  But don’t start cutting back the garden.  Plants are going to need whatever leaves they have left to photosynthesize for the rest of the season.  Take a day or two off so you don’t overreact.  I spent hours picking up debris and cutting stems that were completely broken.

Perennials:  do as little as possible to let leaves keep making food.

Annuals:  Cut back broken parts of flowers like snapdragons and cosmos.  Leave trailing things like sweet potato vines be for a week or so. They will often make new leaves at each node.

Shrubs:  Cut broken parts and let them be.  Like trees, they will start putting out new leaves.  I’m not completely convinced fertilizing helps now because it will stimulate new growth.  I’ll do regular fall fertilizing with a slow-release natural fertilizer.

Trees:  The trees have had such a hard year.  They struggled with late frosts this spring that killed off their first set of leaves and they had to generate a second set of leaves.  Now the hail means they’ll start growing a third set of leaves.  They will really use their food reserves.  I hope it’s not a hard winter.  When the tree dies a year or two from now, we often forget that it was the hail this year that helped do them in.

About the only other thing to do besides keep filling the compost bins is to make sure everything is well watered and mulched going into winter. Don’t pull out plants that look dead…their capacity for regeneration is amazing.

Well, there is one more thing to do:  heal the gardener’s soul by planting some new plants to bring hope and beauty back into the landscape.

My Squash is Wilting

by Sandy Swegel

Eww…Yet another bug thriving this year and ruining my food.  Most of us have experienced our squashes suffering from powdery mildew that coats the leaves white, but knowledgeable gardeners are perplexed here in Colorado by squash that suddenly completely wilts and die (Asana wilt).

Turns out it’s often a very small bug, the squash bug, that injects a nasty venom into the stems wilting and killing the entire vine.

“Can’t we just all get along?” I holler at them.  There’s an entire large squash plant and I’m willing to share with bugs….but the squash bug wants it all.

This is a pest you need to be aggressive with if you see it because it doesn’t share but will kill your whole plant given a chance. Look for the adult bug (looks a bit like a stink bug) or nymph (distinctive antenna and small head) and kill it (take a small bucket of soapy water into the garden with you and throw the bugs in, to drown them, if you don’t want to ‘squash’ them). More importantly, look for the eggs on the underside of leaves and crush them.  Handpicking works well in a small garden if you’re vigilant.

We have to stand our ground against creatures like the squash bug. I explain it to them as I dunk them in the soapy water or throw them to my chickens….if you don’t share and play well with others, you lose your privileges in my garden!

For more info http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05609.html

 http://extension.entm.purdue.edu/4h/default.php?page=snr40&stage=larva

Too Many Zucchini? Eat the Flowers.

by Sandy Swegel

The zucchini in our garden is just starting, so there’s not too much of it yet.  So far, it’s still a nice dish to have sauteed or lightly grilled zucchini and yellow squash.  But I know the day will be here soon when there’s too much zucchini for any normal person. There’s one really good way to avoid too many zucchinis:  eat the flowers. New flowers form right away so you don’t have to worry about not having enough zucchini.

I first learned about eating squash blossoms from my friend Alfredo who grew up on a ranch in Mexico. Squash blossoms were one of his favorite foods as a kid so his eyes still light up when he sees the bright yellow flowers. Squash are ready in Spring in warm Mexico so he remembered eating flores de calabaza stuffed with cheese, breaded and fried for the Cinco de Mayo holiday.  Yum.

Here are some popular ways to eat squash blossoms:

Mexican Squash Blossom Quesadillas You saute the squash blossoms with the onions and peppers to make a great quesadilla filling.  And you get to use LOTS of squash blossoms because they cook down so much.

Batter-fried Squash Blossoms Dip into a flour batter and fry. Crispy and flavorful.

Squash Blossom Frittata Another good use for all those eggs from backyard chickens.

Stuffed Squash Blossoms Squash are great for stuffing.  Stuff them and then pan fry or deep fry them. Good stuffing variations are goat cheese and fresh herbs or sauteed mushroom, onion, garlic and ricotta.

Here are more details on five recipes you can experiment with. http://www.seasonalchef.com/recipe0805b.htm

The absolute cutest squash blossom recipe is one that waits till small yellow squash are formed but before the blossom falls off before taking the flower. It’s a great Cajun recipe that pairs the squash with catfish.  Down South, there are about as many catfish as there are squash….so it’s a great way to use the abundance of fish and food! And so many good Louisiana recipes are just an excuse to eat stuffing!

http://rvcooking.cajunville.com/?p=3161

Pumpkins, They’re not just Decorations!

by Sandy Swegel

I thought I had a great bargain when I found organic butternut squash at the grocery today for only $.99 per pound.  I was in definite sticker shock when the squash rang up over $4.75.  Well worth it for high-quality food of course, but suddenly, all those pumpkin and squash decorations I’m seeing around town look like they ought to be food for me and not just for the squirrels.  My neighbor starts cleaning up after holidays the minute the holiday is over…so on November 1st I loitered in her driveway and offered to carry off that large uncut pumpkin she had decorated the front porch.  At .99 cent/pound, it was at least a $25 value.

There are lots of ways to cook pumpkin, but like most winter vegetables I find roasting makes the flavor sublime.  I decided to cut the pumpkin in thick slices as I’ve heard they do in France, marinate the slices in olive oil and rosemary, garlic and oregano, and roast in the oven for 45 minutes or so.  Just as yummy as the butternut squash I cook that way. And free!

Once I started prowling the web for French recipes for pumpkin, I found what I will do with another big section of that pumpkin:  French fries. Well, officially they are called “Chips de Citrouille.”  A traditional French recipe has you them in milk, dredge them in flour seasoned with salt, and deep fry in a cup of oil for two minutes per side.  You can make lots of variations without gluten or even bake them instead. http://www.traditionalfrenchfood.com/fried-pumpkin-slices.html

Yum. Now what to do with a big pile of pumpkin seeds!

http://www.yumsugar.com/Fast-Easy-Pumpkin-Fries-Recipe-12010370

End of the Growing Season

by Sandy Swegel

We had our first big snow…just six inches but very cold and wet followed by more snow and below freezing temperatures so one might easily assume the vegetable garden is done for the year.  It certainly looks forlorn outside my window.  But fortunately, Nature is kinder than that.  For reasons I can’t quite fathom, lettuce that freezes if it’s too far in the back of my refrigerator can handle quite a lot of extreme temperature especially when it’s well insulated by snow.  I expect that when the sun returns in a couple of days, I’ll be able to brush away any remaining snow and harvest excellent crispy sweet lettuce.  Hardier greens like spinach and chard can even be exposed to the air and frozen solid at 8 am but then be perfect and ready to eat by noon with a little mid-day thawing.

The warm season plants like basil and tomatoes have no chance in the cold.  Basil turns brown below about 35 degrees.  Tomatoes don’t taste nearly as good once night time temps dip into the 30s.  Squash leaves croak right at 32 although sometimes the ambient heat from the ground will keep the pumpkins and winter squash edible even though the air is freezing.  Still, the warm season plants are done. Corn on the cob is a memory held by the dried stalks turned into Halloween decorations.

The root crops are another story.  Carrots and beets improve with each freezing night.  As long as you can pry root crops from the freezing ground, you’ll be rewarded with intense flavor and sweetness that improves even more if you roast the vegetables with some olive oil. Many a picky eater who refused to eat turnips or rutabagas, finds November turnips roasted with rosemary and thyme to be irresistible.

The growing season might be over….but the eating season has just begun!

Curing Winter Squash

by Sandy Swegel

All winter squash improve greatly by having a curing time.  Most of us inadvertently cure our winter squash without even realizing it…by leaving it on the counter or a shelf until we get around to cooking it. Curing is keeping the squash at a warmish temperature (70-80) for about two weeks.  If the growing season is long in your area and the squash is ripe before temperatures start to freeze at night, squash can cure perfectly well just sitting in the field.  Here in Colorado this year, we had a hard freeze that caused us to run out, cut all the squash off the plants and bring them indoors.

What is it curing actually does?  Even though you have picked the squash from the vine, it doesn’t “die” but continues to breathe or respirate (a creepy kinda of thought of all those pumpkins on Halloween porches “breathing.”) Respiration is a good thing because it means the squash are still vital and full of life to nourish you. What curing does is lower the temperature so the respiration slows down. During the curing time, many of the starches in the squash convert to sugar making for a yummier squash.

After keeping the squash at room temperature for 10-20 days, you can then move the squash to a basement, cool garage or unheated room where it will last for months.

Some helpful tips on storing winter squash:

Space the squash so they aren’t touching one another.

Don’t put the squash directly on a cold garage or basement floor. They need to have air circulation around them and will be more likely to rot at the spot where they are touching the floor. Put it up on a shelf or on a board.

Don’t try to cure and store acorn and delicata squashes…they don’t keep well and should be eaten soon after picking