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Steadfast winter companions: growing and cooking leeks and winter squash: these two cold-weather dinner favorites will bring rich flavors to your table.

For gardeners who like to feast on their garden's bounty year-round, winter squash holds a special honor because it doesn't require a root cellar. A shed in which nothing will freeze or just a cool room in the house will keep squash in great condition for three to six months, depending on the variety. Unlike root cellar crops--such as potatoes, carrots and beets, which demand a high-humidity storage space--squash like the air to be dry, as it often is in our homes in wintertime.

Leeks are another hero crop for winter eating. Related to both garlic and onions, their subtle onion flavor enhances braises and stews, but they are also superb served all by themselves.

Winter Squash, Both Large and Small

Growing winter squash is just like growing summer squash. You can either direct-seed or put out transplants no more than 3 weeks old. Winter squash just takes up a lot more space--most varieties grow on wandering vines that can overwhelm a small garden. They make a terrific ground cover, however, if you direct those vines into a little-used area, shading out nearly all weeds by harvest time. (For more tips on cultivating this crop in your garden, see "All About Growing Winter Squash" at

Just be sure to pick squash before your first hard frost and spread them out in a warm, dry place to cure for a few weeks--to harden off their skins for better keepability. Handle them carefully, because nicks and bruises in the skin will shorten their storage life.

You can grow so many wonderful types and varieties of winter squash, beginning with the basic beige butternut, so high in rich, tasty, orange flesh and so low on stringy seeds. It's the one type I'd grow if I could grow only one, and one might be all you can manage. But some year, try a small acorn or delicata type, both of which I've even trained to climb a stout wooden trellis!

'Buttercup' (see the squash-as-soup-tureen pictured on Page 22) and 'Red Kuri' (shown at right) are also on the small side, and both are gorgeous. Just for fun, you might try one of the grand old giants, such as 'Blue Hubbard,' or the splendid vermillion-colored 'Rouge Vif D'Etampes.' Also known as 'Cinderella' because of its deeply lobed shape, 'Rouge Vif D'Etampes' isn't quite big enough to ride in but can easily feed 20 people.

Pumpkins, which botanically are no different from winter squash, can be delicious, too, but look for the cooking varieties, often called "pie pumpkins," not the larger "field pumpkins," which are the kind bred for jack-o'-lanterns.

How to cook winter squash is up to you. Squash can be baked, cut into chunks and roasted for extra-nutty flavor, or simmered in water and pureed. Cooking them is the easy part. Most winter squash are hard to peel (though some people use a wide vegetable peeler), so I almost always peel them after cooking, when the skin separates easily from the flesh. That flesh--dense and rock-hard before cooking--can be a challenge to cut up. My trick when cutting one raw is to drive a kitchen cleaver into the squash by pounding on the back of the blade with a rubber-covered mallet I keep just for kitchen use.

Onions' cousins Mellow Leeks

Start leeks in late winter under fluorescent lights, or look for seedlings at garden centers and farmers markets in spring. Such spring-planted leeks germinate and grow fast, but aren't as large as autumn leeks, which are planted in late summer. Good summer leek varieties include 'King Richard' and 'Megaton,' while good autumn leek varieties include 'Lancelot' and 'Tadorna.' Winter varieties, such as 'Bandit,' Blue Solaise' and 'Siegfried,' can exceed an inch in diameter.

Winter leeks can be left in the ground to mature in spring. Light frosts won't hurt them, and in mild climates, typically Zone 8 and warmer, they can spend the entire season in the ground to be dug when needed. For summer and early fall eating, grow a summer variety; for winter, choose one of the blue-tinted, cold-tolerant types. Drive through the European countryside in wintertime, and likely you'll see patches of upright, blue foliage, there for the digging.

A garden fork is the tool you'll need to pry leeks loose. If your soil is deep and fluffy (congratulations!), you may be able to just grasp the leek near the ground and pull. Feel free to rob an early planting for baby-sized leeks as needed. In areas where the ground freezes solid, leeks can be harvested in late fall and then kept in the root cellar for a month or two. I also keep a stash handy in the fridge, because they don't take up a lot of space after trimming. In either spot, they will eventually start to elongate and form a hard core that would become a flower stalk. At that point they're no longer of much use.

If you've wondered how to cook leeks, the pale green part inside the white outer layers is tender when cooked, but the tough, dark-green tops are only good for flavoring a stock and should be strained out afterwards.

The standard way to blanch leeks is to plant them in a trench to get a long white shank. That's what a cook demands.

At our farm, however, we make 9-inch-deep holes with a crowbar or bulb dibber and then drop a leek seedling into each hole, with only an inch or so of green showing aboveground. The seedlings get light for growing, but by season's end, the holes have gradually filled with soil, thanks to the actions of wind, worms and our cultivating hoe. The result is a long, white leek, ready to be baked, braised, simmered, or added into whatever soup, stew or casserole--in any recipe that can benefit from leeks' silken texture and unassuming oniony flavor. (Learn more about how to grow leeks in "All About Growing Leeks" at

They come out cleaner with our blanching regime, but all leeks need a thorough cleaning. Slice them lengthwise to rinse grit from between the concentric layers.

Leeks are never eaten raw, and you should always take care in cooking them, lest they burn beyond a pleasant, caramelized light brown.

Leek Gratin: A Classic, Comforting Casserole

A gratin is a creamy casserole,
usually with a crust on
top that consists of cheese
or breadcrumbs or both. You
can make a gratin from pretty
much any vegetable, but some
are particularly ennobled by
that treatment, and leek gratin
is one of my favorites. Yield:
6 servings as a side dish, 4
as a main course.

    4 cups chopped leeks (about
      1 large bunch) white and
      pale green parts only
    4 tbsp butter, divided
    4 large eggs
    2 cups whipping cream
  1/2 tsp nutmeg
  1/2 tsp salt
Generous grating of fresh
      black pepper
    4 ounces Gruyere cheese (or
1 1/2 cups bread (about 2

Preheat the oven to 350
degrees Fahrenheit.

Split the leeks lengthwise,
and rinse away any grit. Then
cut them crosswise into
1-inch pieces. Melt 2 tablespoons
of the butter in a medium
skillet or saucepan, and
then add the leeks and a half-cup
of water. Bring to a simmer
over low heat and cook,
covered, until the leeks are
soft and tender and the water
has evaporated. Check them
frequently and stir to prevent
browning, adding a little water
as needed to keep them from
sticking to the pan. When
they're done, after about 15
minutes, arrange in a baking
dish and set aside.

Beat together the eggs,
cream, nutmeg, salt and pepper,
and pour the mixture over
the leeks. Grate the cheese
and sprinkle over the top. Melt
the remaining 2 tablespoons of
butter. Remove the crusts from
the bread, tear into pieces, and
grate into coarse crumbs, and
then toss with the butter. (A
good way to do this is to process
torn pieces of bread in a
food processor or blender while
pouring in the melted butter.)
Sprinkle the crumbs on top of
the cheese.

Bake in the middle of the
oven for an hour or until a knife
inserted in the center comes
out clean, and the gratin is
golden brown. Serve warm.

Spaghetti Squash With Walnuts

Unique among squash,
spaghetti squash breaks
up into pale yellow, pasta-like
strands when the flesh
is scraped with a fork after
cooking. It has a wonderfully
light, tender, but
almost crunchy texture. I
like to treat it simply, as in
this version with walnuts
and butter. The squash
can be cut in half for baking,
but the flesh is more
moist and tender when
cooked whole, either by
baking or boiling in water.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a
side dish.

  1 large spaghetti squash
    or 2 smaller ones (about
    4 pounds)
  1 tbsp olive oil or other
    cooking oil
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely
  6 tbsp butter
  2 tbsp fresh sage, coarsely

Heat oven to 350 degrees

Smear the oil on a
rimmed baking pan. Set
the squash on it and bake
until the flesh is tender
when pierced with a
skewer or a knife (about
1 hour). Test frequently,
because over-baking can
make the flesh soggy and
prone to clumping.

When done, cut the
squash in half lengthwise
and let it cool slightly
to the point where it
doesn't burn your fingers.
Remove the seeds
and the orange strands
that connect the seeds
to the lighter flesh. I find
that pulling on the seeds
with one hand while
using a knife to cut the
strands with the other
does the trick.

While the oven is
still on and the squash
is cooling, spread the
walnuts out on a baking
sheet and toast them
for about 10 minutes,
or until fragrant but not
browned. Melt the butter
in a small pan over low
heat and cook until the
foam subsides, and then
add the sage and sizzle
for about 2 minutes, until
the leaves are slightly
crisp but not browned.

Fork out the flesh of
the squash into a shallow
serving bowl by
dragging the tines of a
fork though it. Do this
carefully and thoroughly,
as it's the key to making
this dish look just
like a bowl of thin spaghetti
--or capellini, to
be more precise.

Arrange the strands
nicely in the bowl and
pour the butter and sage
over them. Sprinkle
the walnuts on top and
serve warm.

Elegant Thai Soup, Cooked in a Squash

This hearty, spicy winter
squash soup can be made
right in the squash itself
and ladled out into bowls at
the table, with no need for a
serving dish. The flesh of the
long-cooked squash gives it a
robust texture, and the coconut
milk adds richness. You
can try this with other winter
squash soups as well. Yield:
6 servings.

    1 round, somewhat-flat
      squash, such as 'Buttercup'
      (about 4 pounds)
    2 cups chopped leeks, white
      and pale green parts only
    2 tbsp butter
Pinch of salt
    1 tbsp Thai red curry paste
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
    1 can unsweetened coconut
      milk (11 ounces)

Preheat the oven to 350
degrees Fahrenheit.

With a sturdy knife, carefully
cut a circle in the top of the
squash as if you were making
a Halloween pumpkin. Make
the hole wide enough to accommodate
your ladle. Discard
the stem and lid, remove the
seeds from the squash and set
the squash aside in an oiled
baking dish or ovenproof glass
pie plate to catch any drips or
leaks during baking.

Chop the leeks coarsely
and saute over medium heat
in a large skillet with the butter
and a pinch of salt for 10
minutes, or until the leeks are
tender and translucent but not
browned. Add the curry paste
and stir until well-mixed.

Bring the chicken broth to
a simmer in a saucepan and
add 1 cup of it to the leeks;
set the rest aside. Pour the
leek mixture into the squash.
In another pan, bring the
coconut milk to a simmer and
stir until the thick and thin
parts have mixed. Pour into
the squash and stir gently. If
there is room, add the rest of
the chicken broth as well. The
liquid should rise no higher
than a half-inch below the top
of the squash.

Place the squash in the
oven and bake for about an
hour or until the flesh is soft
but the squash has not begun
to collapse.

Gently scrape most of the
flesh from the sides in small
spoonfuls and stir it into the
soup, being careful not to
puncture the skin. Add salt as
needed, to taste.

Keep warm until ready to
eat and serve with a ladle or
large spoon.

Story and photos by Barbara Damrosch

Esteemed garden writer Barbara Damrosch farms and writes with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. She is the author of The Garden Primer and, with Coleman, of The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook. Both are available on Page 63.
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Title Annotation:The Gardener's Table
Author:Damrosch, Barbara
Publication:Mother Earth News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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