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Groundwork: A winter squash named Cushaw

In the Smithsonian's Victory Garden, a modest five pounder Cushaw, surrounded by Mexican zinnias. (Joe Brunetti/Smithsonian)

One of the treasures of the October garden -- and the kitchen -- is the winter squash. But which one? There are dozens of varieties, some tastier than others, some easier to grow. None is more delightful than the Cushaw, which is pear shaped and potentially massive with some of the longest-standing fruit reaching 20 pounds. Cushaw is also an extraordinarily robust vine. In the American History Museum Victory Garden, a single vine has crawled along more than 25 feet at the back of the rows of trellised veggies. As with other squashes (including pumpkins) it puts down roots as it travels, making this wanderlust physically (and nutritionally) possible.

The Cushaw's wondrous seasonal journey is also made possible with the skilled care of gardener Joe Brunetti, who sowed seeds in a compost-rich bed, fed them with organic granular fertilizer, and watered as needed. He sowed five seeds in the third week of May, of which three developed into viable vines.

The Cushaw would provide great cover for a trellis, except the fruit is too heavy for vertical cultivation.

In some seed catalogs, it is known as Tennessee Sweet Potato. It has a relatively thin rind, which gives a little when the squash is ripe. In spite of the skin's thinness, the fruit keeps superbly for months in a dry, cool cellar. This is an antique variety that has been around for generations, it is not the most popular winter squash because it's not considered as flavorful as Hubbard and Butternut and others. This may be so, but the variety deserves growing for other reasons.

Pretty and easy to grow, the Cushaw winter squash. (Joe Brunetti/Smithsonian)

First, it is beautiful and would function as a merely decorative thing. From afar, it appears white with green stripes, but as you examine it you see that the green is actually a filigree of sorts. The flesh is a pale green. Second, it is a generally healthier cucurbit than its tastier siblings. Squash and pumpkins fall under four different species of Curcubita. While most are either maxima, moschata or pepo, the Cushaw is a strain of mixta. This seems to make it much more resistant to a serious pest named the squash vine borer, and it is freer of powdery mildew, and just performs better in the stresses of a hot and dry summer. "The vine," says Joe, "is awesome."

This winter, when you are putting together your seed list for next season, make sure the Cushaw winter squash is on it.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cushaw and Wild Rice Salad With Basil Pistou
8 servings

Cushaw squash is a large, mild-flavored squash. If it is unavailable or too large to handle, substitute another dry, firm-fleshed winter squash.

Served on a bed of arugula leaves, the salad makes a beautiful accompaniment to grilled meat.

From Smithsonian Garden education specialist Cynthia A. Brown.

For the pistou
2 cups packed basil leaves
3 medium cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
A few grinds of black pepper

For the squash
3 cups peeled and seeded cushaw squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
3/4 cup wild rice
3/4 cup brown rice, rinsed well
3 cups water
1 medium onion
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted (see NOTE)
2 to 3 tablespoons basil pistou (see above)
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, or more to taste
A few grinds of black pepper

For the pistou: Combine the basil, garlic, oil, salt and pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to form a coarse sauce. The yield should be slightly less than 1 cup. Reserve 3 tablespoons for the next part of this recipe; store the remaining pistou in a container (preferably glass) in the refrigerator or freezer.

For the squash: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Have a rimmed baking sheet at hand.
Toss together the squash cubes, 1 tablespoon of the oil and the thyme leaves in a mixing bowl, to coat evenly, then spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Roast about 40 minutes until tender with browned edges.

Meanwhile, cook the rice: Combine the brown and wild rice and water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for about 45 minutes; the water should be completely absorbed. Uncover and fluff with a fork.

Transfer the roasted mixture to the bowl; toss with the 2 tablespoons of reserved basil pistou. Add the cooked rice and toss to combine.

Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring, until softened. Add to the squash mixture, along with the balsamic vinegar; toss to coat incorporate.

Stir in the pine nuts; let the salad sit for several minutes. Taste; add the remaining tablespoon of basil pistou or a bit of vinegar as needed. Finish with a sprinkling of salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

NOTE: Toast pine nuts in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the nuts have browned evenly. Transfer to a small bowl to cool.

Per serving: 210 calories, 5 g protein, 31 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 25 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  | October 18, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork, Recipes  | Tags:  Adrian Higgins, Groundwork, recipes  
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