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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Your Garden 2015 - Squash!

Here in the PNW it's time to plant squash.

We can catch the spring rains now before our summer drought. (Yes, we have several months with no rainfall.) And frosts are almost entirely unlikely to surprise us now, in late March.

We have been enjoying last year's Oregon Homestead variety of Sweet Meat winter squash. It is just as firm and wholesome now as it was when we harvested it in October. The flesh is bright orange, thick and non-watery, ripe with huge plump seeds that are ready for planting.

These squash weigh about 10 pounds each. Opening them can be a tedious task, so I just take a cleaver to the whole squash, and after a hefty gash, drop it on the cement front walk to our house. It splits along the gash but doesn't make a mess.

Then I scrape out and save the seeds, and roast the halves, cut side up, in a broiler pan at 325 degrees. I don't add water to the pan. Keep an eye on it. You want it soft but not deeply browned (though the brown parts are caramelized and delicious). It will take something like an hour. I let it cool and scoop out the flesh.

This winter I've been making squash custard, similar to pumpkin pie filling. We like it not too sweet, full of spices, and often, made with rice. You can think of it as squash rice pudding just as well. Here's that recipe:


Beat 4 eggs until uniform

Add 1/3 cup sugar pre-mixed with 1 tsp each of two or three favorite spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, or cardamom,

Beat in 2-3 cups roasted winter squash pulp.

Mix in 2 cups cooked rice. I use short-grain white rice and slightly undercook it.

Sprinkle in some salt. I use about 1/4 teaspoon or a bit more.

Stir in 1 quart (4 cups) whole milk, 2% milk, or part whole milk and part cream.

Pour into a large baking dish. I use a large glass lasagna pan.

Stir in some currants, raisins, dried blueberries, or fresh berries, about 1 cup if dried or to taste. Or omit the dried ginger and sprinkle finely chopped candied ginger at this stage. You can also add chopped walnuts or pecans.

Set a roasting pan in the oven toward the bottom, then set in it the pan with the squash. Heat a quart of water in a 4-cup measuring cup till it's quite hot, then pour it into the roasting pan (not the pan with the squash mixture!) as high as it will reasonably go.

Cook for about an hour. Test it by inserting a knife in the middle to see if it comes out clean. Once it does, I give the custard another 10 minutes to make sure all the egg is cooked.

This custard can be served warm or cold, with our without anything added to it. It is firm. If you would prefer a softer pudding, omit all or part of the rice.

It's easy to grow winter squash, it just takes a lot of room. But the long vines can be trained over a lawn or other non-garden area. It does like to set down new roots every few feet, and you can heap up piles of dirt at these points to keep the fruiting vine alive in case the vine gets damaged near the old root.

Each Oregon Homestead plant produces 3-4 10-pound squash. After we roast one, part of the cooked pulp goes into a freezer container for an easy meal or more pudding. If we had them, we would probably sacrifice one every two weeks all winter, so we would need 7 months' worth or 14. (There are two squash-lovers in this household. Adjust the number for your family accordingly.) That is what would be produced by 5 plants. We aim for 4 plants and then add a few Burgess Buttercup to eke out our supply. Four Oregon Homestead take up a lot of vine-space!

(Burgess Buttercup is a much smaller squash with wonderful flesh, 6-foot vines, and 4-5 squash per plant. They keep for months - except we eat them in between the bigger Homesteads, since they make 1-2 meals each and don't require packaging and freezing or other processing or use in recipes.)

We will also experiment this season with a landrace (mixed) winter squash, also produced by Carol Deppe* (see accompanying story). With a landrace you don't know what you'll get, but if we find an exceptional squash, we'll save the seed and hope to find something adapted to our very own yard.

One issue we could have with this plan is too many squash. No such thing, we think! We can always share.

If you don't have much space, you can cut out a circle a couple of feet in diameter, load it up with compost, and plant there.

*Carol Deppe is the author of The Resilient Gardener. She lives outside Corvallis OR and has spent untold years developing reliable varieties of the 5 crops she considers essential for survival. I can't recommend this book too highly.

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