Butternut Squash

There are a lot of enticing winter squash recipes that call for butternut squash, a smooth-skinned, tan squash, long-necked with a bulb-shaped base. Until this past year, I’d never grown it, substituting instead with winter squash I’d grown to love over the years—dark green Buttercup and Nutty Delica, bright orange Potimarron and Eastern Rise and striped Honeyboat Delicata—whenever a recipe called for butternut. Butternut seemed so dull looking compared to these more colorful relatives. I think I assumed the flavor would be dull too.

Butternut squash in basket

Still, trying to be more open-minded while ordering seeds last year, I read through the offerings in the “Butternut Group” section of Fedco’s catalog. There was Burpee’s Butterbush described as “chock full of deep reddish-orange flesh ‘as sweet as the best sweet potatoes.’” The texture was “moist but never watery.” “Fruits average no more than 1-1/2 lb.” It was an “excellent keeper.” And it was early, 87 days to maturity compared to 95 days for the Buttercup/Kabocha group and 100 days for Delicatas. In the spirit of experimentation, I ordered a packet.

In early May, I started the butternut squash seeds indoors along with the other winter squashes and set out all the plants two weeks later. In the first couple of months, the vines of the other squash grew up and over the butternut vines, nearly burying them. The butternut blossoms I could see were slower to set fruit than the other squash and the fruit that eventually set was small and green. I was glad I’d given only one hill to this experiment. By late September though, as the vines died back to reveal ripened squash, a dozen lovely tan butternut squash emerged among the greens and oranges of buttercups and kabochas. I stored them with the rest of the squash and forgot about them.

Butternut squash cut up

Finally, around Christmas time, curious to try one in a recipe that called for butternut squash, I brought a sample to the kitchen. Sliced in half, the entire neck was solid squash and the seed cavity was small. The flesh was a gorgeous deep orange and smelled wonderfully sweet. With a vegetable peeler, I easily removed the thin tan skin; the thick skin of other squashes requires a large knife. Cutting it into cubes was also easy compared to cutting up other squash. Then twenty minutes after brushing the cubes with oil, sprinkling them with salt and pepper and roasting them at 425 degrees, we tasted this squash I’d ignored for so many years. It was amazing, everything the catalog description said it would be: rich, sweet, creamy and beautifully orange, nothing dull about it. No wonder so many recipes call for it.

Since this revelation I’ve been going back to recipes that call for butternut squash and making them with this lovely winter squash. Two current favorites are from Yotam Ottolenghi’s latest cookbook, Plenty More (2014). I’ve made his Squash with Cardamom and Nigella Seeds many times using Honeyboat Delicata as well as Potimarron and both are very good, but made with sweet, soft-textured butternut squash it is even better. In addition to the cardamom pods and nigella seeds, ground cumin, coriander and turmeric, a cinnamon stick and a green chile give further complex fragrances and flavors to the rich butternut taste. The recipe calls for sautéing some red onion then adding squash chunks and browning them before adding all the spices, moistening the pan with a little vegetable stock and then baking. It’s delicious warm or at room temperature.  A garnish of yogurt and fresh cilantro leaves is lovely too.

Butternut squash cardamom frying pan

Butternut squash round dish

Ottolenghi’s Squash with Chile Yogurt and Cilantro Sauce is just as wonderful. Chunks of butternut squash tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and ground cinnamon roast at 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes then are garnished with chile-flavored yogurt, cilantro pesto, cilantro leaves and toasted pumpkin seeds. Ottolenghi suggests “Sriracha or other savory chile sauce” to flavor the yogurt. I used Chicaoji sauce made on Lopez Island for an added touch of chipotle flavor. When I served this dish to guests the other night, my friend Crystal asked: “What is this squash? It’s so delicious.” “It’s butternut,” I said, “and told her my story.”

Butternut squash, cilantro & yogurt sauces

I’m going to plant more hills of Burpee’s Butterbush butternut squash this year and locate them so that other squash vines won’t overrun them. We’ve sadly just finished the last of our small butternut crop but we can look forward to next fall’s much bigger crop.

P.S. I noticed that while Fedco carries Burpee’s Butterbush again this year, it’s currently backordered. Burpee’s Seeds carries the original Burpee’s Butterbush, describing it as a Burpee exclusive. Territorial offers Butterbush claiming that its vines are only 3-4 feet long. Fedco cautions that its Burpee’s Butterbush “though named and classed as a bush butternut” has determinate vines which can crawl up to 10′ in good fertility.” Mine crawled at least 6 feet.  Territorial also offers Hunter “a classic butternut” that matures faster than any other butternut they’ve trialed. Finally, Johnny’s has a mini-butternut squash called Butterscotch, an AAS winner that they developed. And Adaptive Seeds offers Butternut Early Remix an open pollinated variety they have been developing, selecting for early ripening.


Seed Ordering 2015

There’s a lot to distract the kitchen gardener trying to put together seed orders for the year ahead. For starters there’s the “New For This Year” page at the beginning of every catalog, hard to resist pausing over before turning to the catalog proper. Once into the listings, there are the names of each variety, sometimes descriptive, occasionally amusing or even puzzling, and then, in engagingly written paragraphs, the story behind each seed and its particular traits of cold-hardiness or early ripening, taste or nutritional value. All these details invite a pause to compare possibilities and wonder whether to stay with an old favorite or take a chance on an intriguing new variety.

A new distraction in recent years is the unusual colors of vegetables that traditionally came in one color, orange carrots now in red, yellow or purple, snowy white cauliflower now in green, orange or lavender. Are these simply novelties or improvements? Would they taste as good as the original? Are their flavors and colors better raw or cooked?

A final pleasant distraction for the kitchen gardener is imagining meals from vegetables that haven’t had a place in the kitchen garden for a while or have never had one. Is this the year to grow a few Savoy cabbages again, to grow broccoli raab instead of relying on spring kale buds or maybe to plant some rows of flint corn to dry and grind for polenta?

Seed catalogs 2015I’ve been spending the past week indulging in all these distractions as I page through favorite Maine catalogs, Fedco, Johnny’s and Pinetree, Oregon’s Territorial Seed Company, British Columbia’s West Coast Seeds, and some wonderful, smaller Pacific Northwest seed company catalogs in print and online, Adaptive Seeds and Wild Garden Seed from Oregon and Uprising Seeds from Bellingham, Washington. I’m getting close to finalizing orders, to finding a balance between old and new, familiar and startling, between comforting tastes and exciting new flavors.

While non-orange carrots seem a bit trendy I’m tempted to order some purple, red and yellow carrots. Many companies offer Purple Haze, a 2006 AAS winner, and Yellowstone, a truly yellow carrot. Uprising Seeds offers Dragon, a dark red to purple carrot, claiming that it’s spicy and sweet. New this year at Territorial is Red Samurai, “a great tasting true red carrot.” I’ve been roasting my favorite orange Mokum carrots sprinkled with cumin and coriander seeds following a recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s inspiring new cookbook Plenty More (2014). Adding purple, red and yellow shades to this mix would be pretty on a summer or winter table.

Brussels sprouts have satisfied our taste for cabbage flavor from the winter garden and their great cold hardiness and manageable size are other points in their favor. For two people, a dozen small Brussels sprouts are gone in one meal while a whole cabbage lasts for several days at least. Still Savoy cabbage with its crinkly leaves and sweet cabbage flavor tempts me this year. When I used to grow it, I made a delicious pasta dish with buckwheat noodles, Fontina cheese and Savoy cabbage wilted in olive oil and lots of garlic. I’m going to order seeds of January King, an heirloom offered by Uprising, Adaptive and West Coast Seeds. A point in its favor is its cold hardiness.  Uprising’s catalog description calls it “practically indestructible.”

Flower buds from kale, Brussels sprouts and mustards are an early spring treat, sweet with only a slight cabbage flavor. Broccoli Raab looks similar but has a much more pungent flavor. Whenever friends serve it, I wonder why I don’t grow it. It’s so delicious. This year I plan to. Territorial carries Sorrento and Fedco carries Quarantina, meaning “40 days,” the time to maturity for this fast-growing Italian green. I’ll plant it for a fall and early winter crop.

Fedco and Adaptive Seeds offer Abenaki flint corn, described by Adaptive as “best for polenta, grits and wet batter cornbread” and “tolerant of difficult growing conditions.” I have success ripening sweet corn listed at 70 days to maturity so I’m optimistic that Abenaki, listed at 80-90 days to maturity will ripen so I can experiment with grinding our own polenta. Soft, warm polenta topped with sautéed greens or roasted vegetables is a favorite winter meal as is polenta cooled, sliced and grilled and served hot with sausages or pork chops. Of all this year’s seed order candidates, this one will be the biggest experiment.

All of these distractions are part of the pleasure of planning a kitchen garden, a perfect way to spend early January days. I’ll send in the orders in the next few days and soon boxes of seeds will arrive at the mailbox carrying the promise of many delicious meals in the garden year ahead.