Harvest Time-Discovering Winter Squash

Rima Nickell



Autumn officially arrived last Thursday with its bounty of fruits and vegetables in their glorious array of colors and textures. Farmer's market bins overflow with winter squash in more shapes and colors every year. Besides the traditional acorn, butternut and Hubbard squash varieties, we now see the carnival squash shaped like the acorn but with green-stippled orange and cream stripes; delicata, a small, cream and green striped squash with sweet, buttery flesh; and from Japan, the bright orange or dark green kuri squash, firm and dry like a sweet potato.

One of the many ancient food treasures the Americas gave to the world, squash have been eaten for more than 10,000 years. They were cultivated first for their seeds, which are a good source of protein, essential minerals and monounsaturated fats, but the flesh was thin and unpalatable.

After indigenous farmers in Central America developed the first thick-fleshed, mellow squash we enjoy today, its cultivation and improvement spread across the Americas. The "three sisters" of Native American agriculture: squash, corn and beans became the staples of a high quality, nutrient-rich diet for centuries.

Spanish and Portuguese explorers carried squash and other indigenous foods around the world where farmers developed even tastier varieties that now come back to America. (In later columns we will delve deeper into the contributions of America's Indian agriculture to our daily food.)

I always stock up on winter squash during peak season. They are decorative as well as delicious and last all winter if stored in a dry place at between 50 and 60 degrees. A large basket of colorful assorted squash and a pot of chrysanthemums now adorn the entry hall in my house and delights me every time I come and go.

As for eating squash, I've tried most of them and always come back to the butternut, my favorite, and, I discovered, the most nutritious of the varieties I could find values for. Their light tan skin conceals a bright orange meat that packs a nutritional wallop. One cup, baked in the skin, contains 12,000 International Units of Vitamin A, 1,200 milligrams of potassium, a host of other important nutrients, only 2 milligrams of sodium and less than 100 calories. And stay tuned. Scientists are just beginning to discover the effects of some of the phytonutrients in squash on promoting health and preventing disease.

Soups are a great way to enjoy squash: aromatic, beautiful and comforting against autumn frosts and winter blues. These two fall soups: Harvest Vegetable Soup and Squash and Apple Soup feature squash which adds sweetness and body to the mixture.

Harvest Vegetable Soup (Serves 6)

This is a basic soup recipe that easily adapts to seasonal ingredients. You can vary the amounts and ratios of various types of vegetables and herbs depending on what's at the market or simply what you have on hand. Try sweet potatoes instead of squash; leeks for onions, or add slices of fresh okra. This is a no-fail recipe. Whatever you do, the ingredients will blend into a rich savory-sweet brew that will satisfy you down to your toes

3 tablespoons oil (extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed safflower or sunflower oil)
2 cups onions, coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 cups squash (butternut or kuri hold their shape in soup) cut in 1-inch chunks
1 large bay leaf
5 cups vegetable or chicken broth or water
1/2 cup red or white dry wine
3 large ears sweet corn, cut off the cob
1 medium potato, cut in 1-inch cubes
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 4 to 6-inch sprigs, each of fresh basil, thyme, oregano and parsley.
1 cup green beans, cut in 2-inch lengths
2 teaspoons each fresh thyme, basil and parsley, minced
1 cup greens, coarsely chopped spinach or Swiss chard.

In a large heavy soup pot, sauté over medium-high heat the onions, celery and garlic until the onions are translucent. Add the bay leaf, broth, tomato juice, wine, corn, potatoes, salt and herb sprigs.

Bring to the boil then cook on medium heat 20 to 30 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. Add minced herbs and green beans and cook 10 minutes or until they are just tender. Add spinach and cook until greens are barely tender. Garnish with chopped fresh parsley. Remove whole herb sprigs before serving.

Squash and Apple Soup
My son's wife, Tara, introduced me to this delectable soup from A Mountain Harvest Cookbook (Doubleday and Co., 1985) written by her friend Roberta Sickler. It's become a fall and winter staple in our family. I use it here with Roberta's blessing.

1/4 cup butter
1 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 apples, peeled and chopped
6 cups vegetable broth
4 cups diced [peeled] butternut squash
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 t dried rosemary
1 teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
few grinds of black pepper
1 cup fresh apple cider
1/2 cup heavy cream [or half and half] [optional]

Melt the butter in a heavy soup pot and cook the onions, celery, and apples still soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the vegetable stock and simmer 10 minutes. Add the butternut squash and seasonings and simmer until tender, about another 15 minutes.

Puree most of the vegetables and broth in a blender. Leave a little at the bottom of the pot unpureed, for texture. Return the pureed mixture to the pot together with the cider and cream. Stir well and cook gently until just heated through. [Avoid boiling to prevent curdling.]

Cider Notes

As I wrote this, I thought about the old Franklin Cider Mill. We used to make an outing there at least once every fall to watch the old fashioned cider pressing, taste the cold, tart-sweet nectar fresh from the press and carry home a gallon or two-one to drink right away and one to let ferment a while for some fizz and tang. I'm pleased that the Mill is going stronger than ever and that people are still flocking there from miles around. While they don't have their own website, (in fact, water-powered since 1832, the cider mill doesn't have any electronic equipment) it's become such a popular destination, there are no shortage of other websites which feature the Mill with contact information and maps.

Fresh Corn Muffins
Makes 12 muffins. These are a great accompaniment to any soup.

1 cup unbleached flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk (I like to use buttermilk for a moister texture. Reduce baking power to 2 teaspoons and add 1 teaspoon baking soda)
1 large egg
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 cup uncooked corn kernels

Blend thoroughly the flour, cornmeal, baking powder (baking soda) and salt in a large mixing bowl. In another bowl beat together the milk, egg and melted butter. Add corn, then stir into the dry ingredients until barely moistened. Fill well-greased or paper-lined muffin tins and bake in pre-heated 400 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

Call in friends and family, put the soup in a tureen on the table, pull the muffins from the oven, gather round the table and give a toast to good company and good food. - Rima

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To learn more about Rima and the Beyond Food series, please click here. Look for Beyond Food to appear regularly in these pages.

Finding Farmer's Markets

Nationwide revival of local farmer's market has been taking place for more than a decade. In buying from local farmers, you get fresher products and have a direct connection with the people who grow your food. This peak of season is a good time to stock up on storage vegetables such as squash, onions, potatoes, beets, and carrots. Beside Eastern Market, the 80-year old Royal Oak Farmer's Market and the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market have a variety of vendors and hours to suit different customers. The Master Gardener Society has a directory of southeastern Michigan farmer's markets.

© 2002