Every fall cucurbits rise to fame and infamy. They appear on porches as testaments to their diversity, as monsters and vampires, as modern art disguised as a vegetable smashed on the ground. They bring folks to a local farm, bring families together around a hot pie, and bring coffee lovers to love or hate the words ‘pumpkin spice’. They are a symbol of fall, harvest, and abundance. I am thankful for them. I am most thankful not for the pumpkin, however, but for the Butternut – cucurbita moschata.
My bias towards butternuts lies in my ability to grow them. In the eastern US we have a pest called the squash vine borer which, as its name implies, likes to bore into squash vines during its larval stage. This boring activity can quickly kill an entire row of plants if not controlled. It is most fond of Hubbard type squash – cucurbita maxima – and makes it all but impossible for me to successfully grow this type without intensive management. Due to this I have given up attempts at growing maxima squash in favor of things that require little to no management. Common pumpkins – cucurbita pepo – are less susceptible to this pest, however they still can take significant damage from their activity. I save my own seed, and since both common pumpkins and all zucchini are members of this same species, to prevent crossing I have opted to not grow common pumpkins at all as I cannot even imagine a summer without too much zucchini! Can you?
This leaves butternuts – cucurbita moschata – as my stalwart source of winter storage squash, as they are almost entirely immune to damage from this pest. This is not at all upsetting, as they are delicious, prolific bearers, and store well in just about any situation you would put them in. If I recall correctly, I once had a butternut squash sit at room temperature for 18 months before I finally tired of the experiment and cooked it for supper. It was not even a touch below par, in fact the longer these squash sit in storage, the sweeter and tastier they become. Maybe it is just a function of moisture loss over time increasing the relative percentages of sugars and flavor compounds, maybe it is actual chemical changes, maybe it is entirely in my imagination and it just tastes sweeter for the knowledge that this squash has been sitting here in storage and I have gained a respect for it as an individual after seeing it every time I enter the room for the past year.
Butternuts can be cooked any number of ways, and I will not try to list them all here. Suffice it to say they are delectable any way you want to prepare them. The smell of cutting them open is intoxicating. The strange way the latex makes your skin feel is interesting. The seeds are numerous and easily saved, roasted for snacking, or tossed in the compost for surprises next year. My favorite way to cook squash is arguably the simplest – roasting. Scrub the skin thoroughly, cut off the stem end and blossom end, slice in half, scoop out the seeds, place in a baking dish, brush with oil, and bake! You can add whatever herbs, spices, or flavorings you want but it really is that simple. I favor a simple sprinkle of salt and pepper, with whole cloves of garlic tossed around and on top of the squash. The temperature and time is completely up to you, I prefer mine to be fully cooked through to melting softness with some caramelization on the surface, but there is no right or wrong way here.
From the Anonymous Appalachian Agrarian, thank you for reading and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.