In the first flush of spring, as violets and narcissus perfume the air, as we taste the first luscious spears of asparagus and await the first tender lettuces, I consider the old winter produce we’ve yet to eat up: sprouting potatoes, thick-cored parsnips, leeks that will soon form stalks, and squashes still heaped in baskets. The little striped pumpkins are especially problematic. Resulting from an accidental cross between an acorn squash and a miniature pumpkin, the fruits are lovely and sweet-fleshed, with meaty seeds that are excellent for roasting. But the skins are as hard as those of gourds. I can hurl these babies onto a concrete floor and make dinner from the mess, but I prefer to bake my little pumpkins whole.
My daughter, Rebecca, took on the problem without my asking. She scored each of four pumpkins all around with a serrated bread knife, and she jabbed the score line in spots with a narrow, pointy-bladed knife. Then she used the pointy knife to pry off the tops, which came loose with nearly perfect edges (the slight imperfections helped in replacing the lids later; Rebecca says next time she would purposely notch each edge).
Rebecca scraped out the seeds and filled the cavities with quinoa, raisins, roasted hazelnuts, and chives before baking the little pumpkins for dinner. Next time she thinks she might try quince preserves in place of raisins, but the possibilities for filling ingredients are endless: rice and peppers, bread and cheese, bacon and onions and cream, sweet coconut-milk custard . . .
Baking the pumpkins gave their shells a handsome burnished look. After the chickens had pecked off every clinging bit of flesh from the insides, both bases and tops were still fully intact, so I scrubbed the shells and left them on the kitchen counter to dry. To keep mold from growing, I squirted them once or twice with chlorine-water.
And now I have four pretty little striped pumpkin boxes, for jewelry or keys or pennies or any other little things that need confining.
When 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.