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GARDEN FRESH : The Squash Tribe

January 06, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

If any provender from the garden symbolizes joyous abundance and abandon, it's winter squashes. Growing, their vines clamber cross country, rollicking over (and up and over) everything in their path. Ripening, their voluptuous fruits gleam green, gold, yellow, orange, ivory, blue and red amid thickets of bold dark leaves. The colors can take the shapes of rounds, drums, teardrops, schmoos (from "Li'l Abner," remember?) acorns and blimpy bananas and pears--their figures fluted or smooth. Sizes of winter's squashes can range from peaches to Cinderella's coach.

And what's the difference between summer and winter squash? Just time. Summer squashes are immature fruits, ready to eat within six or seven weeks of sowing. Winter squashes have ripened, usually taking three to four months to do it, and aren't ready to eat until late autumn or winter.

Over the years, some strains of squashes have proven to be tastier at one stage or another. But that's not to say you can't eat your squashes any time you please.

Cucurbita, the squash tribe, consists of several families. Four of them produce winter squashes. It's important to know the pluses and minuses of each clan when ordering seeds. And it's rewarding to know what you're seeing at the market--you no longer have to settle for tried and true banana squash.

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* C. maxima: Generally the sweetest, least fibrous, best-keeping and largest winter squash. Some will store a year or more, and their quality will hold. Enormous rumpled hubbards (some gauzy blue), flavorful buttercups with belly buttons, big zucchini-shaped bananas, exotic turbans and matte-shelled kabochas that look like Japanese rice wine pots are C. maximas. I'm partial to the scarlet-orange, teardrop-shaped Red Kuri and thick, dark orange, ultra-smooth Chestnut.

The coach-sized pumpkins are also maximas (yes, pumpkins are winter squashes). Big Max regularly weighs in at 100 pounds, and its golden flesh makes good pies. There are pumpkins I heard about that weigh 600 pounds or more--suitable for Reubenesque Cinderellas.

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* C. pepo: Here are the rest of the glorious pumpkins. Large, rosy-red Rouge Vif D'Etampes, generously round, flattish and deeply gathered, a pumpkin out of a French fairy-tale--and magical in the garden. A small sugar pumpkin, on the other hand, is Yankee plainsong, perhaps the finest for pies. Trick or Treat has lots of "naked" seeds--with no hulls, for carefree nibbling. The deeply lobed acorn squashes with their buttery orange flesh, the zany spaghettis, the diminutive green-and-ivory striped Delicatas (long) and Sweet Dumplings (round) are also C. pepos.

Usually C. pepo squashes must be eaten within a month or two of harvest. After that, their quality declines. But pepos are the fastest-maturing squashes--best choices for areas with short seasons. (Incidentally, all the summer squashes are pepos.)

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* C. moschata: Here are the long, pear-shaped, buff-colored butternuts. They're not the handsomest of the tribe on the outside, but inside they have a small seed cavity and lightly sweet flesh that cooks to lustrous orange. Butternuts are among the longest-keeping winter squashes and they grow easily. Waltham Butternut is tops.

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* C. mixta: Little grown except for Green-Striped Cushaw, shaped like a crooknecked butternut, pale-green mottled with dark-green. The flesh is coarser and less sweet than other winter squashes, but good for baking. Popular in the South because Cushaw's vines are vigorous and among the most drought-tolerant.

Having set their winter squashes in a cool, dark, dry, airy place in autumn, prudent gardeners everywhere are now bringing them into the kitchen. A splendid feeling. I once kept an enormous blue Hopi winter squash in our entry hall for a year, rather than in the cellar. I felt rich every time I looked at it.

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Like so many plants, squashes are easy to grow if they have what they need: Full sun and moist, well-drained soil, stuffed with organic matter--the happiest squashes I've seen were volunteers on the compost pile.

Wait to sow seeds until the soil is warm. I set squashes three feet apart at the edge of the border so they can amble over the grass or along the railroad ties or down the slope and nobody's bothered. Each is beautiful in its own luxuriant way.

When the days turn warm, mulch deeply with compost. Spray once a month with mild kelp solution.

No room for gallivanting vines in your garden? Grow a squash in lightweight potting mix in a five- to six-gallon container two feet deep. Burpee offers shorter-vined varieties: bushkin pumpkin, butterbush butternut and bush acorn. Keep the soil mix moist but not wet, and feed every two weeks at half-strength.

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