With names that tend toward the fairy-tale (Cinderella, Moonshine, Black Forest, Hubbard, Carnival) to the exotic (Rouge Vif D’Etampes, Musque de Provence, Kakai, Red Kuri) to the downright confusing (Long Island Cheese Pumpkin, NutterButter, Pink Banana), the thick-skinned storage varieties of the Cucurbitaceae plant family (which also includes summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, decorative gourds, chayote, and luffa gourds) represent a diverse and flavorful food source for us in the Northeast. Many of us are accustomed to paying rock-bottom prices for pumpkins and gourds destined only for carving and decoration, and buying canned pumpkin off a grocery store shelf (organic canned pumpkin is available in this day and age, a nice alternative for the non-DIYers among us). A conventionally-grown or imported pumpkin creates quite a toll on the environment, and builds a perception that all thick-skinned squashes, whether for centerpieces, Jack-o-Lantern carving, or eating, should be a cheap food. Squash may not be as precious as baby salad greens at the start of the spring, or those heavy 3-lb heirloom tomatoes at summer’s peak, but growing flavorful, ripe squash at a small scale, without conventional pesticides and fertilizers, and in our unpredictable climate zone, causes farmers to either take a loss to bring us these colorful fall favorites at our expected price point, or ask a large price for something we’ve come to expect to be cheap.
While squash indeed grows in our region, and is prized for its nutritious flesh that keeps within a protective shell throughout the winter, our Northeast summers are not ideal for this plant to bear and set fruit.
Challenges and Strategies for Growing Winter Squash:
More days in the field means more potential for pest infestations, disease-producing conditions, weeds taking over, and mammals to munch leaves.
Other crops (including those high-priced greens and tomatoes) can’t be grown in a squash field for the whole spring-summer-fall season, an example of an opportunity cost.
Plenty of heat and sun (temperatures in the 80’s during the day and 60’s at night) are needed for squash to grow well. With 2014 providing an excellent example, it’s clear that our climate doesn’t provide that consistently. Growers have some management options here, including black plastic, Biotella biodegradable mulch, or dark landscape fabric (all of these help with weed suppression, too), a well-sited field with southern exposure, and starting the plants in a greenhouse or cold frame to have them maturing for more of the hot days of the year.
Squash are susceptible to moisture-borne diseases, namely powdery and downy mildew. Variety selection and air circulation are key for crops, but no grower is immune to poor weather. While some growers will provide cucumbers a drier environment in a high tunnel, this is not practical for the area of space and amount of time (again, it’s an opportunity cost, this time with expensive infrastructure) the pumpkins and winter squash require. Disease-tracking reports are available to help growers be aware of the movement of disease via tropical storms. Yearly crop rotation and proper disposal of infected plants help the chemical-free grower avoid future issues with these diseases. Organic producers must always be on the preventative side, planning management tactics into their production plans, rather than wait for disease and pest problems that can be killed via non-organic methods. If you’re interested in being such a savvy producer (of more than winter squash), attend the October 21st workshop in Geneva, NY, which will feature a number of experts in organic disease management!
Squashes need lots of soil fertility, so a grower needs to build soil for years prior to a planting of winter squash, and any crop that follows squash should be one that returns nutrients to the soil (like leguminous cover crops), or at least does not require a lot of soil fertility. This long-term planning, and heavy use of resources outside of the actual growing year for the squash crop, makes the cost of production even higher than most farmers calculate.
Squash plants are spaced out significantly in the field to allow the roots to soak up nutrition, and the vines spread out to absorb the 3-4 months of sunshine that go into ripening each hefty, colorful, knobbly, lovable fruit. Weeds can populate the between-vine and between-plant space and cause serious competition. Cultivation and tillage when the plants are young might be one option for controlling weeds, but hand labor or deciding to not weed are the late-season options for weed control. Growers use mulch to reduce the areas of the field where weeds can catch sunlight and flourish, and there has been some research into no-till methods of growing squash. Conventional squash fields can be sprayed with certain herbicides to kill grassy weeds, and organic farmers can’t take that option.
Ripe squash fruits are heavy and require lots of labor and proper conditions to move from the field to storage, and from storage to sale. Fair labor and living wages for farmers and their crew mean that squash harvest is pricey! Squash must also be “cured” for 7-10 days at 80 to 85 degrees, meaning a grower must hope for late-summer/early fall heat waves or use up high tunnel and greenhouse space for curing. A good storage facility for long-term storage has temperatures around 50 degrees and 60% relative humidity. Beyond that, there should be good protection from rodents and the stock should be checked regularly for signs of storage decay, which can spread.
Enjoying and Eating Winter Squash:
Now that you know the ways that your local farmer is working to bring you these great foods, you’re probably in the market for a few good techniques to prepare these squashes. Some are better for certain applications, and your best bet is to ask a farmer about how watery/dry the flesh is, and how sweet/savory the flavor.
To roast small squash (Delicata, Acorn and Carnival varieties), you can split them stem-to-end, scoop out the flesh, and rub them with just a little fat, salt and seasoning (see below for ideas). For larger varieties, peel and cut the squash into chunks or slices and massage with the oil and seasoning combination, then bake until tender. Bake halves on a tray (line with parchment or foil, or just embrace the scrubbing you may need to do later) cut-side down in a 400 degree oven until you can pierce the skin with a fork and find soft flesh underneath. Make a whole batch of roasted squash, and see all the ways that it can feed you. Intact but cooked-through and chilled squash pieces even work well in salad, and any amount of cooked flesh can be dumped into simmering broth, then pureed into soup.
The drier fleshed squashes can be sliced very thinly and added to skillet sautees and even stir-fries (make sure they get good browning in a hot pan with oil, and that they cook through).
All squash will steam up nicely, cubed, sliced or chunked. Keep an eye on it to keep it from disintegrating (use it for soups and better-than-potato mashes if you end up with too-soft pieces). Pile some cooked beans and salsa atop, dress simply with olive oil, or add to a pasta dish.
A pressure cooker (assuming it’s the right size) makes quick work of halves and quarters of squash. Just 10 minutes atop a steam insert is really all it takes. Add some strong herbs into the steaming water for a lovely infusion of flavor.
Try these flavor combinations with squash:
- olive oil, black pepper, garlic paste, and rosemary
- sesame oil, maple syrup, and miso paste or soy sauce
- butter, crushed fresh or dry sage, thyme and honey
- olive or sunflower oil, crushed hot pepper or chile powder, cocoa powder (not cocoa mix), smoked paprika
- coconut oil and curry powder or garam masala blends of spices
- “Pumpkin Spice” mixes tend to include cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves; they go well with butter
- finish any of your squash dishes with chopped and toasted nuts or (appropriately) pumpkin seeds or something creamy
Make your own pumpkin puree (via Local Kitchen, the key is straining out lots juice from the cooked flesh, then it will act much like the canned type, but with local flavor!)
Variety guide (Co+Op)
See the ode to winter squash (and all Cucurbitaceae) in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.
Tips for cutting the tough and dense raw fruits abound on YouTube: Soften the skin in hot water (Down to Earth Organic & Natural), navigating the butternut shape (Chef Tips), Use the microwave (CHOW)
More fun recipes: Pumpkin Spanikopita (Local Kitchen), Butternut Squash and Kale Beef Stew (Girl Meets Paleo), Red Kuri Creme Fraiche Pie (Co+Op), Roasted Winter Squash Salad (101 Cookbooks)