Instead of living in the garden like we do in the summer, fall is the time to just visit the garden. The soil is so wet, I cringe every time we harvest.
One only has to see celeriac roots to see why it is such a good candidate for dry land gardening. If that plant can’t gather up available moisture, I don’t know what will. The leeks were the only vegetable in this array grown with supplemental irrigation.
Still in the garden are some other miscellaneous late fall plants. Cold weather helps the flavor immensely. I’m thinking by Thanksgiving we will be ready for some of these sprouts. Personally I think there is some room for hybrid varieties of vegetables in my garden. I have no desire to save seed from many vegetables because I just don’t have the space. Growing hybrids is okay, especially when you get predictable results.
Another great hybrid, Kossak kohlrabi, these can get huge like Lutz beets and still be sweet and tender. Well worth growing if you like kohlrabi.
And there is room too for open-pollinated experimentation. Wild Garden Chicories is a great blend, and a good source of winter hardy greens.
You just have to remember to have fun while you garden…
Who knew squash and pie would elicit questions. My big confession is that recipes are just where I start. What came first the recipe or the pantry? I have no idea anymore. Farm food is an extension of my life, of what I do every day. What’s for dinner? Don’t ask, it will appear. On tap for today was Cream of Sauerkraut soup, a request actually. But, I came back to the house after moving the cows with a bag of fresh mushrooms. So tonight we’re having mushrooms. Cream of sauerkraut soup will be good on another day, the kraut will keep.
A farm kitchen and the farm meals are just an extension of the farmers themselves. The winter squash we grow is a good example. The only part that isn’t used is the stem. That goes into the compost bucket for chickens. I am sure they don’t notice it, it just becomes carbon in the deep bedding and eventually ends up in the garden again, or in the pasture.
Since the squash keeps so well in its raw state, I cook a squash over a week’s time, throughout the winter and into the spring until we tire of squash. I grow so many, not so much for the humans, but for the hens and the dogs. I know, feeding squash to dogs? They love it. Plus they never complain about my cooking and they are good listeners. Dogs are funny like that. And the hens? You want good yolk color in the winter? Feed your hens winter squash, kale is good too, but those red yolks I get are from the beta carotene in the squash mostly. One a week will feed twenty hens a good dose of beta carotene and turn that into stupendous eggs for you.
To get the squash into usable form for me in the kitchen I make “canned pumpkin” every week. To do that, I start by busting off the stem usually with the knife handle, then I proceed to cut the squash in half. If you break off the stem, you expose the weak point of the squash. Cutting around the equator or starting at the blossom end is a good way to gut yourself in the kitchen. It helps too to place the squash on towel so it’s not so apt to slip. I start my cut there at the stem hole because the squash will sit squarely (roundly?) on the cutting board while you wrestle with it. I’m not kidding, these things are tough. Sometime I just chop them with the axe while I’m building a fire but most of the time I break them down in the kitchen.
Now I have just taken nature’s perfect package and damaged it. I don’t want to cook a 15 pound squash in one day, so I only cook part of it, about a quarter of it actually. Many times your kitchen tools determine what you can do, it’s that way with the “pumpkin pie.” It starts with my 5 quart kettle I steam the squash in. I like to steam the squash, it’s faster than roasting, and it stays moist for any kind of dish I want to make. Baking is okay but it seems to take longer than I want, and time is money with an oven.
By now, I know just how big of hunk to cut off the squash half, basically I am cutting the squash like a cantaloupe and slicing off wedges until I have enough to fill my steamer basket. Too much and the lid won’t fit and the squash won’t cook properly. I cook the squash flesh side down until a knife or fork easily penetrates the skin. Around 40 minutes at medium high heat. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside until cools.
To prepare my slices for cooking I remove the seeds and pulp with a paring knife. The seeds are great roasted, or you can save them for seed if the squash meets your criteria for seed saving. This one is one of my oddballs, weird shape and it was oozing a pitch-like substance at harvest so I won’t be saving these seeds for planting but if we don’t eat them, they may go into Jane’s dinner dish, or I might just send them to the hens. Zero waste.
To store the rest of the uncooked squash, leave the seed cavity intact until you plan to cook the squash. It will keep better. You can put plastic wrap on it and refrigerate, or you can just leave it on the counter until your ready. Our house is cool, so I can get away with that for a few days. If it was more convenient you could cook the squash in its entirety and freeze in containers that suit your recipes. I never do that since freezer space is at a premium here and the squash keeps so good it seems futile to me. Like the broth I make each week, if it’s in the fridge I am compelled to use it in my cooking, once I commit something to the freezer it’s pretty much gone to me unless we’re talking meat, butter or raspberries!
So now that I have my steamed squash, or “canned pumpkin” I can proceed to the eating. Keeping with the idea of waste not, want not, I scoop the flesh away from the skin and put into a container for the refrigeration. The skin and a little pulp goes into a container for dog food. The dogs love the squash along with their other food items.
At this point I can use the cooked squash in any recipe calling for pumpkin or squash. We consume most of ours as…squash. One of my favorite lunches is Cheese Henge, I heat the squash with a little butter until it’s warm through and then stick cheddar cheese sticks in it. They melt a bit, and the salt and sweet go down good. My kid started calling it Cheese Henge when she was little and the name stuck. But really it’s just weird food, made possible by the convenience of having precooked squash in the fridge.
As for the pie, that really depends too on what’s on hand. I get out the big 4 quart pyrex bowl, add up to about 4 cups of squash, sugar, spices, vanilla and as many eggs as I have on the counter up to about 6, mix all that together and then add milk or cream until I think the bowl will fill the pie dish, mix and then pour. Sometimes I have more, so I bake the extra as custard in custard cups. Farm kitchen pie. Too simple for a recipe, and very forgiving I might add.
A few weeks ago when I posted about getting the winter squash harvest in, Michael asked me to expand a bit on the criteria I used to select seeds for my Sweet Meat winter squash. I have to say seed saving is a broad subject that sometimes becomes political or sometimes is just too froufrou for me. On a farmstead if you want to save seeds, you have to get the idea out of your mind that you need to save the world, and all the seed varieties that are being lost, blah, blah, blah. What you need to do is concentrate on you, your land and you and your land’s capabilities. I won’t go into what you need to do to be a seed seller selling guaranteed pure strains, that’s entirely different than a home gardener who wants to save seed either to save money, play around with plant breeding, or just expand your gardening repertoire to include seed saving.
My criteria for seed saving usually has an emotional aspect, I know or knew the person who grew the original plants, or I like the color, or I like the name, things like that, that really make me think about the particular vegetable or flower all throughout the season. It’s not just a bean, it’s a bean my surrogate grandparents grew. You know, the warm, fuzzy stuff.
One thing that is bigger in most people’s minds is taste. I cannot lie, that is a biggie. I’ve grown my share of seed catalog wonders that taste like, well, let’s just say they didn’t meet expectations. Many times too that comes down to terroir, I grew a much touted tomato this year and it did not live up to the hype, but part of me believes I need to save seed from those tomatoes I grew that tasted better and give that variety another chance. Next year. The constant agrarian lament. On the flip side I grew another new-to-me tomato this year and it straightened out the false tongues on my boots. Both came from Oregon, but different parts of the valley, so we’ll see.
That leaves economy. Can you save the seeds without too much trouble, have them bear true to type and shorten your food supply chain? Do you have the space for isolation if you’re wanting to save seeds from a vegetable that cross-pollinates? Are there gardeners nearby growing things that can cross-pollinate with your crops? Can you get by with just one kind of winter squash, or do you want to get all CSA-like and have a smorgasbord? Sometimes it just makes more sense to buy the seeds. Seeds are inexpensive when you see a crop mature and see just how much food you can grow with a handful of seeds. And it doesn’t hurt to keep that seed company in business, you may need them someday.
Seed saving is fun, and you can manipulate a variety a bit over time and make it more suitable for your growing conditions. I have trouble at my location with getting enough heat units to mature some warm weather crops, so when I started with Sweet Meat I had a few years that some of the squash didn’t ripen. Even though you see a pie at the top of the post, dessert fodder was not my reason for growing this many squash. Here are some of my criteria and how it worked out.
♥ I wanted a squash that would be suitable for our house needs, tasty, thick flesh, that is sweet enough for desserts without a lot of added sugar and not so sweet it wouldn’t be suitable for savory dishes, and I wanted a lot of seeds for eating and seed saving. We go through about one squash a week, maybe a pie once in a while, but usually as a vegetable side. The dogs and hens share in this one squash a week scenario too.
♥ I wanted a winter squash that keeps for a long time. Obviously my early efforts with some fruits green at harvest time didn’t sit well. Those green squash quickly became hen feed.
♥ I wanted a winter squash that wasn’t too big nor too little. A squash too large just becomes cumbersome during harvest and when you need to cook it, a squash too small is more handling than I wanted.
To that end, I grew no other squash that would cross-pollinate. I grew a minimum of twenty-five plants to ensure a large gene pool. Warning, this takes a lot of space. Our Sweet Meat row takes up three of our dry garden rows, that sounds like a lot, but it also produces close to five-hundred pounds of food in that space without irrigation. Food that keeps a year without any kind of processing except to eat? That’s definitely on my list of things to grow.
For optimum keeping quality, the squash needs to be harvested before frost, and when ripe. After harvest the squash needs to be cured in a warm place, in your house if you can stand it, and then after a week or two moved to cool, dry storage where there is no chance of freezing. I store mine in an unheated bedroom in the house. The barn where we store potatoes is too cold and damp, and our basement is too damp. I learned those things the hard way.
As the squash cures it will develop more flavor. I have heard that Sweet Meat will sweeten in storage for up to six months. I don’t know that for a fact, but I do know that the squash tastes much better around Christmas and January than it does now.
I try to keep to my Guideline 52 and plan for a squash per week thereabouts. Once fall is upon us we start adding the squash into our diet as the summer foods drop off. We polished off the last zucchini this morning for breakfast…sniff. Zukes, I will miss you. To be truthful though, we really slow down the squash eating once greens besides kale start appearing in the spring.
So now the seed saving observations begin as you work through your winter squash stash. Assuming you didn’t commit any culls to storage (we’re eating those now) you systematically start using up your squash. I look for signs of spoilage, soft spots, weird color around the stem, etc. That is not a keeper, but for sure suitable for eating. When you cut the squash open you look at it. Do the bad spots run through? Is the flesh thick? Is the seed cavity full of good seeds or duds? At this point you may want to save some seeds if the flavor is just out of this world. If you do, make note of what you liked and didn’t like about this particular squash. As the eating season progresses you will find better candidates that meet all your criteria, save those seeds with accurate notes and dates. Wash, dry completely until you can break a seed in half. I dry my seeds on a platter and give them stir with my hands when I think about it. In about a week or so, you can store them in a dark dry place or the freezer if you have space. The seed life of a squash seed is at least 3 – 4 years, longer if kept in the freezer and taken care of.
So your efforts are not entirely wasted, save twice what you think you will need, and only plant half. Crop failures, illness are any manner of happenings can throw a monkey wrench into your gardening plans. Work out a plan in your mind what your criteria is, it may differ from mine. The main thing is to make it easy on yourself to do. Seed saving is about 99% observing throughout the growing and eating season and 1% saving the actual seed. Let the seed saving begin!