Friday, November 1, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: The Festival of Butternut

The cross-quarter day between the fall equinox and winter solstice is one that has no shortage of holidays to its name, both ancient and modern, sacred and secular. To the ancient Celts (and to modern pagans) it was Samhain, the turning point of the year, when spirits could enter the everyday world; the Catholic Church converted this tradition into All Hallows' Eve, the eve of All Saints' Day; in Mexico, the date became attached to the traditional Day of the Dead holiday of the ancient Aztecs; and the modern festival of Halloween is a largely secular holiday that still honors the ancient spirit of misrule. For gardeners, however, this mid-autumn celebration is all about the harvest. The second crop of greens is now in the fields, along with cabbages, beets, lima beans, cauliflower, and a few last lingering tomatoes and peppers. But of all the jewels of the early-November garden, none is greater than the winter squash.

Winter squash, in fact, is one of my very favorite crops of the entire year. Summer squashes, like zucchini and yellow squash, are okay, but they just don't have much flavor of their own; they're more of a canvas on which other flavors can be painted. Winter squash, by contrast, is packed with flavor, as well as color and nutrition. It's also very versatile, useful in everything from soup to soufflé, curry to muffins. And unlike summer squash, it will keep for months in a cool, dry room.

Unfortunately, the same tough rind that helps winter squash keep so well can also make it much harder to work with. When you set out to cook a Hubbard squash or an acorn squash, just cutting it open may be the hardest part of the job. Luckily, butternut squash is a lot more manageable than most of its peers. Food guru Mark Bittman recommends it as "by far the most convenient" of all winter squashes, saying it's the only one that you can hack open without a cleaver, and "its flavor and texture are wonderful." That's why butternut is the only winter squash to earn a place in our small vegetable garden.

This year, we grew two varieties: the popular Waltham squash, recommended for its good flavor and high yield, and Ponca Baby, which produces smaller squash that are quicker to mature, but don't store as well. Last year, we planted only Waltham and got very few squash, so I thought adding a faster-growing variety might help improve our yields. As it happened, however, both the Waltham and the Ponca Baby have produced very well. We've already eaten a couple of each, and there are still four or five more out on the vines (plus one tiny Ponca Baby that's not mature yet but is struggling along valiantly and just might get big enough to harvest before winter hits). And on Wednesday, Brian picked this monster off one of the Waltham plants. (For scale, it's displayed here next to the huge batch of Sun Gold tomatoes he picked at the same time.)

So tonight, to celebrate the squash that is the heart of autumn, we'll be enjoying this butternut in my very favorite squash recipe: butternut squash lasagna. We originally found this recipe in Mother Earth News, but we made several modifications to it:
  1. Instead of chopping up the squash and sautéing it, we put the whole squash in the microwave, zap it for about 20 minutes, let it cool, and then peel and mash it. This is a lot easier, and the sauce can be made and the cheese grated while the squash is cooling, which saves time.
  2. We use regular lasagna noodles intead of the no-boil kind, which are more expensive. We typically use half a box of noodles (about 9 of them) for a 1.5-to-2-pound squash, cooking them until they're just flexible. This is the last step before assembling the lasagna.
  3. This means the noodles absorb less liquid when cooking, so we cut the sauce ingredients down to 3 tablespoons of butter and 2.5 cups of milk. We also use nonfat milk instead of whole, since (a) that cuts the fat in the recipe and (b) it's what we usually have on hand.
  4. We use less Parmesan than the recipe calls for and mix it with some bread crumbs to give the lasagna a nice crunchy top.
This squash is well over 2 pounds, so we won't use all of it in the lasagna, but whatever's left will keep quite nicely in the freezer, where it will come in handy for all sorts of other recipes. If there's enough, we might even use it in place of pumpkin in this Thanksgiving's pie. (We're also hoping to substitute a rhubarb pie for our usual apple, so that both pies will use home-grown produce. Plus a metric buttload of sugar and flour and butter, of course.)

A green salad is a nice accompaniment to this lasagna, so maybe I'll go out and pick the one lonely little head of Boston lettuce that actually came up out of the fall crop I planted two months ago. It's not much of a harvest, but it can still be part of our harvest festival. After all, man does not live by butternut alone.
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