With the gardening season winding down, it's time to think about storing and cooking some of your prized harvest. One crop that is easy to keep and cook with is winter squash. Whether you grow butternut, buttercup, acorn, or one of the many exotic winter squash types, this group of Cucurbits can be stored for months under the right conditions and used to make great soups, pies, casseroles, and breads. Plus, winter squash are high in vitamin C and minerals such as magnesium and potassium, so they're good for you, too.
Here's how to store and cook winter squash.
When mature, winter squash develop a hard skin that protects them from rotting. Harvest winter squash when the fruits have turned the appropriate color for the variety you're growing and your thumbnail can't pierce the skin. Be sure to harvest before a hard frost since the cold can hasten rotting. Cut the vegetables from the vine, leaving a 4- to 6-inch-long handle. However, don't try to move the squash fruits by grabbing the handles, which can easily break under the weight of the fruit. Avoid bruising or scraping the squash skin or it won't store very long. Cook any damaged fruits first.
Leave the winter squash in the sun to dry for a few hours after harvest. Brush off any soil and debris, wash the skins with a mild bleach solution (1 cup bleach per 1 gallon water) then move them to a warm (75 to 80 degrees F) shed or garage to cure. After about one week of curing, store them in a cool basement or root cellar. Ideally the storage temperature should be between 45 and 55 degrees F with low humidity. If you don't have a root cellar, any cool, dark location, such as a closet floor or cool kitchen cupboard will do. I've even heard of gardeners storing their winter squash under the bed! The closer the conditions are to ideal, the longer the squash will keep. Check the winter squash periodically throughout the winter months, removing and discarding any that have soft spots or show signs of rotting.
The type of winter squash you decide to grow, buy, or cook is a matter of personal taste. Some of the most popular types include butternut squash varieties, such as 'Early Butternut' and 'Zenith'. Butternut squash have a bottle shape, smooth tan skin, and moist, nutty-flavored, orange flesh. They make great pies and stews, and are tasty when steamed or baked and drizzled with maple syrup or brown sugar.
An acorn squash looks like a blackish green, white, or golden (depending on the variety) ribbed football. The fruits weigh 1 to 3 pounds at maturity. The pale orange, slightly fibrous flesh is tender, dry, and sweet. This squash is at its best when baked. Buttercup squash have a squat shape, dark green skin, and a turban-like cap on the blossom end. The orange flesh is sweet and somewhat dry. It can be baked, stuffed, or used in soups. Some of the newer varieties, such as 'Turban' and 'Kaboucha', have become very popular for their colorful skins and flavorful flesh.
Beside these common winter squash types, there are many exotic ones available as well. Spaghetti squash looks like a small, 2- to 5-pound watermelon with golden-yellow skin. The yellow flesh is unique because when cooked it separates into strands like spaghetti pasta. Cut the squash in half, bake it, then use a fork to separate the strands before serving. You can even mix it with tomato sauce and surprise your guests.
Delicata squash are also called sweet potato squash. The 1- to 2-pound, oblong fruit is white with green stripes. It's known for its creamy, yellow, sweet flesh that tastes like sweet potatoes. The skin is thin and, unlike other winter squash, edible, too. Delicata is best steamed or baked. Banana squash, such as 'Pink Banana Jumbo', are odd-looking fruits that are shaped like bananas but can weigh up to 30 pounds. The thick, tan skin covers a finely textured orange flesh. It's best to cut this large squash into pieces to steam or bake it.
Sweet dumpling squash are perfect for a single serving. These small squash are white with green stripes and resemble miniature pumpkins. The orange flesh is tender and sweet. Sweet dumpling squash can be baked, steamed or even roasted for eating whole.
Here's a simple squash soup recipe that will surely keep you warm on a cold winter's night. Bon appetit!
Winter Squash Soup:
2 pounds winter squash
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups milk
2 cups light cream
1/2 cup medium-dry sherry
salt & pepper to taste
toasted sliced almonds
Peel, seed, and dice squash. Combine with water and 1 teaspoon salt in saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, until squash is very tender. Meanwhile, sautee onion and garlic in butter until tender. Puree squash and onions with milk and cream in blender. Add sherry, salt, and pepper to taste. Heat to serving temperature. Serve garnished with toasted almonds. Makes about 10 cups.
Replacing Container Soil
Q. I live in the north and wonder what to do with the soil in my containers after the growing season? Can I just store the containers in my garage over the winter or do I need to empty them and start with fresh soil next spring?
A. In general it's best to replace your container soil each year. By the end of the season the soil in small containers is quite depleted and the texture has deteriorated. Plus, the soil may be harboring diseases and insects that can attack your new plants next spring. Since it's costly to buy new soil for large containers, you can leave some soil in the container and then replace the rest next year. For rubberized plastic pots, there is no harm in letting the soil freeze -- in fact, low temperatures may kill overwintering insect pests. However, if you have terra cotta or ceramic pots, they will crack or possibly shatter if allowed to freeze while full of moist soil. Protect these pots from freezing temperatures.