December 13, 2017

Squash a Thanksgiving Tradition as Vegetable, Dessert

Carnival squash is a cross between an acorn and Delicata varieties.

Janine Pineo Photo | Carnival squash is a cross between an acorn and Delicata varieties.

• By Janine Pineo •

Thanksgiving begins the season of traditions, a time when memories are vivid and meals past are revisited with relish (may I suggest cranberry-orange?).

An integral part of the holiday meal is an easy to prepare — and to grow — fruit that functions well as a vegetable and in desserts: the versatile squash.

While the summer varieties often garner more of my attention with their nearly instant gratification, I’ve found winter squash, Cucurbita maxima, has its rewards.

One of them is in its history. Squash is considered native to the New World and was cultivated by Indians long before Europeans washed ashore. Its name, in fact, is derived from New England’s Algonquin language.

Another reward is in its long storage life, which is probably a big reason squash has been a staple of New England gardens. It’s satisfying to serve a home-grown “fresh” vegetable long after the harvest is past.

For kicks, I grew several winter squash varieties this year, in addition to my usual array of pumpkins.

Sweet Dumpling is one of the handsomest winter squash I’ve seen, its cream- and green-striped skin mottled with green spots. It looks more like a large, ribbed ornamental gourd than something supremely edible.

I first spotted this variety last winter in the supermarket, where it was simply a nameless squash in a bin. Fortunately, one of my seed catalogs pictured Sweet Dumpling and I decided to grow it for myself.

The only problem one might find with Sweet Dumpling is in the cooking. It’s nearly impossible to peel, but the solution is baking or microwaving the halves.

I gave one acorn-type squash a try, Table Ace. This hybrid developed one fruit early in the season (oh, how I watched over that squash), and a few smaller ones came along a little too late to develop properly.

The wait for the big one was worth it. Table Ace is a deliciously sweet squash, and one I shall plant another year.

Another test squash was Delicata, a variety I first saw when a friend gave me one. This elongated squash is a creamy yellow with green stripes, a striking combination. The few fruits I harvested seem to be storing well, although the skin is changing slowly to light orange. The seed catalog says the flavor improves as time goes by. We’ll see.

I doubt 1996, with its summer of endless rain, was the best of test years, but both Sweet Dumpling and Delicata produced about six squash from a couple of plants. Only a handful of fruit had any size to them, with the rest late to develop. But size often affects flavor, with that of the smaller squash more intense.

This is especially true for a close relative of C. maxima, Cucurbita pepo, better known as pumpkin. (Not surprisingly, the terms pumpkin and squash are used interchangeably, which may lead to confusion when looking for a certain type of plant. Indeed, not all pumpkins are pumpkins; my favorite pumpkin, Rouge Vif D’Etampes, isn’t — it’s a squash.)

Rouge Vif D’Etampes, which hails from France, is also called the Cinderella pumpkin because the rather flat fruit has a concave top that makes the whole thing look like Cinderella’s coach. I’ve planted this colorful variety (rouge vif means vivid red) for several years with fairly consistent results. The fruits never grow very large, and this year almost all of them were so small they looked underdeveloped.

Rouge Vif D’Etampes keep well, even if they aren’t all grown-up, and the few I harvested will be served as a vegetable throughout the winter.

Just for fun, I decided to grow Baby Bear pumpkins, a novelty miniature variety that was developed here in Maine. Baby Bear, which is a true pumpkin even though it weighs in at less than 2 pounds, is an All-American Winner created in Albion by Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

With one of its parents the heirloom New England Pie, Baby Bear is touted not only as good for baking and pies, but also for its appeal for decoration.

I’d say the cute size is worth the effort of planting Baby Bear, and now I’m waiting for the right moment to see if the taste is just right.

That moment may come next week.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in November 1996.