Last of Summer’s Bounty: Winter Squashes

sam in pumpkinsWhen sunlight streams through the red and yellow grape leaves as if they’re made of greased paper, when the walnut spreads a gold carpet of leaves across the driveway and pelts the roof with its black-husked nuts, when the new grass shimmers as green as in April and everything looks brighter in the clean air, it’s time to bring in the pumpkins and other winter squashes. They should be hard-shelled and full-colored now, dark green as the cedars, yellow and orange and red as the leaves dropping all around. The thick stems of the maximas should have turned woody, ready to separate from the dying vines. You need strong clippers for the bigger pepos; cut the stems to just an inch or two. Be careful not to break off a stem, or rot will set in early at the wound site.

A light frost or two will have done the squashes no harm. If you’ve let them sit out through weeks of rain, well, you probably should have got to them sooner. Scrub off the mud, and let the squashes dry. Set them in the sun or another warm place for at least a few hours; I put mine on a sunny deck on the south side of the house. In a wet autumn, a spray or wipe of bleach water may ward off fungus.

“Experts” will tell you to store your squashes at fifty degrees. If you’re thinking of a damp shed or basement, though, think again. Dampness makes squashes rot before their time. A better choice is a cool room in a heated house. My squashes keep well in laundry baskets in the dining room until March, at least. This past August, in fact, I fed the ducks the last of last year’s harvest—a few spaghetti squashes and Jack-Be-Littles—although they showed no signs of decay. But I wanted to save my appetite for the new crop.

Maybe you have some really big squashes—say, blue-gray Sweet Meats (Oregon heirlooms) or a Cinderella-style Rouge Vif d’Etampes.  In Traditional Portuguese Cooking Maria de Lourdes advises, “Break the squash by hurling it to the ground.” But Maria is telling you how to make pumpkin jam; sometimes you need a cleaner cut. For that, you might strike with a cleaver once or twice before dropping the squash hard on a counter. Or you might gash the squash with a long knife—my husband bought me a 14-inch chef’s knife for this purpose—and then hit the back of the blade with a mallet.

Maybe instead you’d like to cut off the top of your squash jack-o-lantern style. Then you can scoop out the seeds and bake the squash whole, so you can serve it with soup or stuffing inside. I do this with miniature pumpkins, which are delicious with just a little pat of butter or a custard filling.

Whatever sort of squash you’re cooking, don’t throw out the seeds. Tossed with a little salt and oil and roasted, squash seeds make an excellent snack. Another Oregon
heirloom variety, Golden Delicious, is today grown commercially just for its seeds. The flesh, though sweet and smooth (it was developed for baby food), is spit out by the harvest machine and tilled into the soil.

My favorite way to cook winter squash is to bake halves cut-side down. A good dry, sweet squash will leak into the pan not water but a little thick, tasty syrup—the cook’s kitchen treat. Cut slices of the baked squash for dinner, or spoon out the flesh and mash it. Taste it before seasoning it; you may finds it needs no butter and maybe not even salt.

What do you do with the leftover flesh from a big squash? I puree it all. If the squash is a bit stringy, I use a food mill, but otherwise I use the KitchenAid mixer. The puree goes into plastic containers in the freezer, where it’s ready to thaw for pie or bread or soup or ice cream or a dish of plain old pureed squash. I am embarrassed to write this—no respectable householder keeps any frozen food for more than twelve months—but pureed squash keeps well in the freezer for several years.

With your squashes serving as home décor and an occasional meal, you can put up your feet and wait for the seed catalogs to arrive. If you’re like me, you’ll pick out an old favorite squash or two for next year, and then you’ll choose a new one that promises to be sweeter, creamier, or prettier than any you’ve tried before.

An Excellent Pickler

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My new favorite pickling cucumber has a name that’s a mouthful: Vorgebirgstrauben. It’s a European type, with abundant little prickles instead of scanty warts. This cucumber is thicker than skinny French cornichon types, but unlike most American pickling cucumbers it doesn’t tend to bloat; it makes an attractive pickle at any length from one inch to five inches. Although the fruits from my plants have been slightly bitter, the bitterness is lost in pickling, and the mostly dark green color is retained. The plants are very productive and, in comparison with the other varieties I planted this year, disease-resistant.

I bought Vorgebirgstrauben seeds from Harvest Moon Seed Company. I hope other U.S. seed companies will begin stocking this outstanding variety.

2020 update: Vorgebirstrauben is now available from Uprising Organic Seeds, High Desert Seeds, and Restoration Seeds.

 

Magic Beans from Spain

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My neighbor Roxanne called to thank me for “the magic beans.” I was surprised; how did she know I called them magic beans? I hadn’t mentioned the beans at all when I’d handed her husband a brown bag that also contained cucumbers and tomatoes.

“They’re magic,” Roxanne explained, “because they’re the best beans we’ve ever eaten.” This was high praise from the wife of a man who grew green beans for eighty-five or so of his ninety-some years, though he doesn’t grow them anymore, now that he is permanently bent in a planting posture. I agreed with Roxanne that these beans were the best, and then I explained why I call them magic beans.

I’d learned about these beans from my friend Teresa Barrenechea, when I was editing her book The Basque Table. In Spain, Teresa had explained, the typical green beans weren’t tubular but flat, and much, much tastier than the round kind. Ah, the Spanish grow Romanos, I had thought. I disliked Romanos because they were always in such a hurry to swell, and their seeds, to me, had an unpleasant beany flavor. But the Spanish beans, as Teresa described them, had no such faults.

A few years later, in 2001, I was traveling in Spain with my son Ben, who had just spent a year as an exchange student in Galicia. While walking in a public garden we came upon a small model vegetable plot with a few bush bean plants. Spying a dry pod, I pocketed it, slipped out the seeds, and dropped the empty pod to the ground.

The day Ben and I were to leave Spain I panicked. What if the agricultural police caught me with the bean seeds? What if they didn’t catch me, and my five seeds introduced some phylloxera-like bean pest into North America? I decided to leave the beans in the wastebasket of the pensiớn.

But where were they? I searched my jacket pocket, turned the jacket upside-down, shook it. The beans, to my relief and regret, were gone.

At home a few days later, I was sorting dirty laundry. I checked my jacket pocket and found a candy wrapper, a tiny tube of toothpaste . . . and the bean seeds—first one and then another, until I’d counted all five. Elated, I put them into a little envelope and labeled it “Magic beans 2001.”

The following spring I planted three of the seeds, but too late; early rains rotted most of the pods before they reached maturity, and I harvested only five more good seeds. More or less the same thing happened for the next several years, and some years I had nothing to plant except reserved two-year-old seed. But slowly I built my stock, and in 2008 I had enough to plant two long rows.

We started eating the beans. Teresa was right, we discovered; they were delicious, meaty and stringless with a flavor at once both rich and mild—“lacking the nasty part of the bean flavor profile,” as my husband put it. Unlike Romanos, the pods grew to full size and rested a bit before swelling and toughening.

This year, after pests ate my first and second plantings of Magic beans, I had plenty of seed for a third planting, and now I have beans to cook, freeze, share, and save for next year.

Can you grow beans like these? Spain has numerous varieties of flat, stringless judías, or green beans, of both pole and bush types. Renee’s Garden sells a Spanish variety that sounds very similar to mine, under the name Musica, but it is a pole bean. As far as I can find, no Spanish bush variety has been imported to the United States. Many American seed companies are selling a flat bean called Roma II, which looks similar to my bean, though shorter and broader, but I haven’t tried it. Other flat varieties pictured in the Vermont Bean Seed catalog look lumpy, swollen with bean seeds, rather than sleek like mine.

If you want true Magic beans, you can stop by my place for a few seeds. In trade, I would consider a cow.