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Groundwork: Super squash

A golden autumnal moment in the fertile fall garden at Green Spring Gardens. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

What a lovely time to be in the vegetable garden, when the days are bright and crisp and the fruits of late summer's planning and work will be harvested in the coming days and weeks. The fall garden is a mirror of the spring one, except the cool-season veggies mature without the stress of increasing heat.

Recipe Included

Contrary to common belief, the first frost does not end the season. It serves merely to sweeten crops such as cabbages, carrots and parsnips. Tender plants such as tomatoes, peppers and basil are felled by Jack Frost, but the lettuces and other salad greens can take several degrees of frost without missing a beet, sorry, beat.

And speaking of beets, the fall crop is beginning to reach harvestable size.

Cindy Brown and her colleagues and volunteers have been harvesting onions that have not bulbed up, so the onions look like leeks, or scallions on steroids. The spring-planted leeks themselves are now mature and can be taken as needed until the ground freezes.

Onions that thought they were leeks, gathered and seated. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Cindy loves the way the leaf lettuces have bulked up in recent days, and she is happy too that the fennel is producing a nice bulb, in the way that spring-sown fennel won't (again because of the heat stress). "I saw fennel not much bigger than this at $3.99," in an upscale grocery store, she said. "So why not do your own at home?" She is also harvesting lima beans, Swiss chard and radishes.

The Sungold cherry tomato vine is still fruiting and ripening at the beginning of November. Unbelievable. The tomato's flavor is not as piquant as in September, but it is still a treat. Cindy puts them on grilled cheese sandwiches. I just put them in my mouth.

Our featured crop this week is the winter squash, a vegetable that takes a long time to mature and wants more than its share of real estate, but produces a fruit that brings a genuine joy to the autumn season. One of my favorite varieties is the Blue Hubbard, a large, warty squash with a waxy, gray blue shell that wraps flesh of the brightest orange. With fruits weighing as much 15 pounds or more, you have to have the recipes to accommodate that much. A little old Butternut is also a sweet squash, but the fruits are three to four pounds.

This year, the Green Spring gardeners are trying Honey Bear, a new introduction that was deemed outstanding in trial gardens around the country. It is favored for its small black-green fruits (little more than a pound) on compact vines. Cindy says it's okay, but for flavor she prefers an Asian variety named Tetsukabuto. The fruit is about four pounds, dark green, slightly ribbed, and its yellow flesh is particularly sweet, moist and nutty.

The winter squash Tetsukabuto, at around four pounds it's fine for trellising. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

One of the prettiest (and most delicious) Asian squashes is called Red Kuri, whose fruit is a bright orange red, shaped like a Hershey's Kiss, and a good size (six pounds or more).

That's about the heaviest variety you'd want to grow on a trellis (my preferred way to grow smaller squashes). Order seeds this winter and directly sow them in early June, once the soil has warmed. You can continue sowing them well into July -- perhaps where you grew trellised peas. The biggest pest on squashes is a moth called the squash vine borer, whose grubs burrow into the interior of the stem, near its base, and then quickly kill the whole vine. Some gardeners put some form of protective covering over the first few inches of the young vine, and I've heard of serIous squash growers who preventatively inject a solution of Bt into the stem with a hypodermic needle. Cindy points out that varieties that derive from the species Cucurbita maxima (unfortunately the Hubbards and Red Kuri among them) are more prone to this pest than those out of C. moschata (a group that includes butternut, Tetsukabuto, Long Island Cheese, Kikuza and Futsu Black).

Cindy will report solo next week. I'll be in England, checking out my brother's allotment garden. I'll report the fall veggie scene across the pond back when I return.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cindy: Peeling winter squash so it can be cubed and roasted is always a bit of a challenge. Smooth-skinned butternut squashes are so appealing to cooks because they are easy to peel with a vegetable peeler. But don’t let ribbed, bumpy and warty skins thwart experimenting with other squashes. Pour yourself a glass of wine and take the time to carefully peel the tough skin. A vegetable peeler is still the best tool; you may have to cut the squash into smaller, more maneuverable pieces to remove the skin from all the nooks and crannies. The abundance of varying flavors is worth the effort.

Don’t take the easy way out and just cut the squash in half and roast it. Cubed, roasted squash can be used in so many different recipes: tossed with pasta, sage, garlic and Parmesan cheese; sauteed with onion and served as a winter bruschetta; or combined with pancetta, rosemary and ricotta cheese and used as a pizza topping.

Roasted winter squash makes saying goodbye to summer a little easier.

Autumn Farmers Market Salad
6 servings

Pomegranate seeds and walnuts add crunch, and the cayenne pepper is necessary to balance the sweetness. The seeds are sold separately in vacuum packaging; we found them at Wegmans stores. Pomegranate molasses is available at Middle Eastern stores and on the international aisle of larger grocery stores.

Adapted from a recipe in the October 2008 issue of Bon Appetit.

For the squash
2 pounds moist, orange-fleshed winter squash, such as Tetsukabuto and Honey Bear varieties, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (4 1/2 to 5 cups)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

For the dressing
2 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons walnut oil
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

For assembly
Leaves from 1 bunch arugula, torn (6 cups)
1 small head Bibb lettuce, torn into small pieces (6 cups)
2 Bosc pears, cored and cut into bite-size pieces (see NOTES)
1/2 cup walnut halves, toasted and coarsely chopped (see NOTES)
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds (from 1 pomegranate; see headnote)
2 teaspoons pomegranate molasses (see headnote)

For the squash: Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Toss together the squash, oil and cayenne pepper on large rimmed baking sheet, making sure to coat the pieces evenly, spreading the pieces in a single layer. Sprinkle with the salt. Roast for 15 minutes, then use a spatula to turn over the squash pieces for even browning. Roast for 15 minutes or as needed so the edges of the pieces are nicely browned and the squash is tender.

Sprinkle lightly with salt and let cool to room temperature while you make the dressing.
For the dressing: Whisk together the juice, oil and lemon juice in large shallow bowl. Season to taste with salt and coarsely ground pepper.

For assembly: Just before serving, combine the arugula, Bibb lettuce, pear, toasted and chopped walnuts and the pomegranate seeds in a large serving bowl; toss to coat. Season with coarse salt and pepper and then add cooked squash. Drizzle with the pomegranate molasses. Portion on individual plates at the table.

NOTES: To prevent the pear pieces from browning, place them in a little acidulated water (water with a bit of lemon juice) until you're ready to assemble the salad. Toast nuts in a heavy, dry skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for 2 to 3 minutes, until they are lightly browned and begin to smell toasty. Watch carefully; nuts can burn quickly. Transfer to a dish to cool.

Per serving: 357 calories, 5 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 111 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  November 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, Groundwork, winter squash  
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