Steadfast winter companions: growing and cooking leeks and winter squash: these two cold-weather dinner favorites will bring rich flavors to your table.
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 http://goo.gl/7Ydh8l.)
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 http://goo.gl/5a.FRfJ.)
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 cheddar) 1 1/2 cups bread (about 2 slices) 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 chopped 6 tbsp butter 2 tbsp fresh sage, coarsely chopped Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. 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|
|Publication:||Mother Earth News|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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