I've always considered having a backyard vegetable garden primarily a summer experience. Visions of cutting luscious juicy lettuce, picking flavorful tomatoes off the vine and making little batches of fresh pesto for dinner keep me going through the long, chilly, dark months of the year. But now that I want to eat more local food all year-round, I find myself giving more thought to planting a vegetable garden that can provide food on my table in November, December and January in addition to warm, sunny months. Certainly, preserving fresh produce by canning, freezing, etc. can stretch the garden eating season, but there's something special about having a simple fresh vegetable from the earth in the winter months, and for me, nothing fills that bill like winter squash.
Rich in Vitamin A, beta carotene, Omega 3's, potassium and fiber, hard-shelled squash belong, almost without exception, to the species Cucurbita maxima or C. moschata and are one of the most nutritious of all vegetables. Grown for thousands of years by Native Americans, our word "squash" comes from the Massachuset Indian word askutasquash, meaning "eaten raw or uncooked." In fact, winter squash holds a place of honor in Native Americans history and culture, starring as one of the legendary "Three Sisters" which could sustain life when other sources of food were scarce. As the story goes, corn was planted first, and at the base of each seedling, bean and squash seeds were planted. The beans fixed nitrogen in the soil, feeding the corn, and climbed the stalks. As summer heat came on, the squash leaves helped to shade the corn and beans roots, conserving moisture and crowding out weeds. A classic case of companion planting, Three Sister seeds were given to early white American settlers and helped them survive tough stretches; in fact, Three Sisters veggies were very likely main components of the first harvest "Thanksgiving" meals.
[Find a lovely Cherokee story about the Three Sisters here.]
There are many kinds of winter squash, and each seems to have its own texture and role in the kitchen. Most have a firm, sweet orange flesh that is as versatile as it is nutritious, able to play many parts on the dinner table. Peeled, cooked and pureed, squash can be added to breakfast cereals, sweet breads, savory soups and main dishes, even chiffon pies. Getting to know each variety and what it does best -- and perhaps growing them -- is one of those wonderful garden/culinary journeys that can last a lifetime.
Butternut squash makes delicious soup; pumpkins, of course, are good in pies (as are other squashes); acorns are perfect for stuffing; spaghetti squash can substitute for pasta. The list goes on. Last summer I grew acorn, spaghetti and sweet dumpling squash. When the stems hardened, I cut and stored them in a cool, dry place in our barn, making sure the "keepers" didn't have any cuts or bruises, which lead to rot. On a recent rainy day, I cooked up the acorns and froze the pulp in zip-locks, which I'll defrost throughout the winter and use in soups, muffins and cooked cereal. Homegrown winter squash may look the same as the store-bought version, but I have found the taste -- as with most fresh, organic veggies -- to be vastly superior. A freshly-picked and baked spaghetti squash is sweet, tender and delectable, needing nothing more than a dot of butter to wow any dinner guest. A fresh, sweet butternut can be halved, baked and eaten right out of the skin with a fork.
Winter squash is easy to grow in the summer garden, but the plants take up more space than many backyard gardeners can afford. No worries: You can find a bountiful mix of local winter squash right now at local grocery stores, featured as a part of colorful holiday produce. At Town & Country, the price is currently $1.48 a pound for organic, and 98 cents a pound for non-organic. Both are grown here in the Northwest, and will likely keep for several weeks in a cool, dry place (not outdoors). Winter squash is also a staple at the Farmer's Market and most CSAs.
If you have less-than-thrilling childhood memories of winter squash at the dinner table, consider giving it another chance. There are probably several varieties you haven't tried, and all kinds of recipes you've never dreamed of. Besides, there's nothing quite like the aroma of squash baking in the oven, or steaming on the stove, and it doesn't have to be Thanksgiving to enjoy it. Here are a few links to start you off on your winter squash journey:
Information, photos and good descriptions of winter squash varieties
Winter squash recipes
Nutritional information about winter squash