Plants we Love: Delicata Squash

In our garden, Delicata Squash have a special nickname.  Though they are one of our favorite varieties of winter squash, we refer to them mostly as "unauthorized cucurbita." Some plants we love for their flavor, their easy growth, heavy yields, or their striking colors.  The Delicata has all that.  But some plants we also love for the story they carry of their origin, or our personal discovery of them. The unauthorized cucurbita is one of those, with a history special to us.  

When we were first courting, I was teaching at a small college in Oregon, and Noah was  working in a wide range of places in Asia and Africa, based out of Malaysia.  It's not easy to woo someone from several continents away, but we managed, exchanging long and involved letters by email for months.  The first tangible letter came in a mysterious package Noah mailed between assignments when back at his home base in Kuala Lumpur. He'd alluded to something coming in the real mail in the electronic letters, but I had no idea what to expect.  The box, when it arrived, released a potent mix of exotic smells into the air of my Oregon porch:  cloves from Madagascar, farm-cured vanilla beans, coffee from Tanzania. All were carefully labelled in plastic bags with the bright yellow tape I now know also marks all Noah's photo gear. Deep inside the box was one very official and cryptic sheet of paper with the US customs stamp and a record of one confiscated item, listed as "Unauthorized Propagative Material: Cucurbita spp."  I am enough of a botanist to know that must mean seeds of something in the genus Cucurbita.  But that includes melons, cucumbers, and a whole host of varieties of squash and gourds. I wondered what special exotic forest-edge seeds he might have tried to send, and what their fate was at the US border.  

It turned out that in fact they were nothing so exotic, and of all the things in that package, the only one that actually originated in the US.  Knowing that spring was coming in the Pacific Northwest, he'd enclosed a packet of seeds he'd received while filming a farmer training class put on by friends in Wisconsin:  Delicata Squash seeds officially grown, packaged, and labeled by High Mowing Seeds, with a USDA stamp. They were certainly the most official and approved item in that box, but the only one held up at the border. 

Luckily, on returning to the US later that spring, Noah brought another packet to replace them, and I planted them in the small garden of my new Forest Grove home.  With such a history, and a tendency toward metaphor, I kept an extra careful eye on those plants as they grew in the raised bed garden that summer: a slow start, one seedling eaten by slugs, a bout of powdery mildew.  But they grew right through all of that, through tough clay soil and no small number of weeds. Through some smokey hot August days and into the drizzling Oregon fall.  By the time Noah moved permanently back to the US and joined me in the above-garage apartment we referred to as The Treehouse, we had an impressive basketful of striped oblong "unauthorized cucurbita" fruits: the first Delicata harvest.  

This year, we planted an entire 100-square foot bed of them, covering them with protective cloth through early and late season frosts, still with a watchful eye.  They produced at least 100 pounds, and we have entered full squash-eating season with delight.  They are one of the best squash for simply cutting in half and baking in the oven, then eating with butter and salt, a dash of pesto, or cheese, or maple syrup, depending on your squash-eating inclinations.  You might not expect romance in a winter squash. I never did.  But it's the surprises in the garden and the growing that are the best gifts. 

 

On the Table: Gratitude

We've been in a bit of a frenzy here lately, getting ready to leave the farm to attend a workshop at Quail Springs.  The trip preparation happens against a background of  wrapping up harvests, processing food, a major woodworking project (the first one with a deadline and a payment), and some serious thoughts and planning about our next move.  At the moment our beloved barnboard kitchen table reflects that chaos: baskets of squash and ripening tomatoes share the space with a DeWalt drill, a bottle of wood glue, the extra-large first-aid box and some pruning shears.  

In the midst of all this end-of-season activity, it seems like a good week to share something a little less tangible that is also at our table for each dinner meal: a ritual we call gratitudes.  Maybe it's the fact that this week started with the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, or that we are headed to spend time with people who inspired the start of this practice in the first place, but it seemed like a good week to explain and share this simple exercise that has become a regular part of our days.   

Each evening when we sit to dinner--even if that is just a quick stop to pick up a slice of pizza while out on errands--we take a moment to each say, out loud, something for which we are grateful. Sometimes the grattitude is one single thing, a clear highlight from the day; sometimes we have a long list, a conversation that continues as we eat. When friends or family join us, it sometimes becomes a series of celebratory toasts.  

Homegrown food and gratitude on the barnboard table.  Photo by Noah.  

Plenty of research shows that expressing gratitude can have powerful benefits on mental health and happiness.  We feel those benefits, of course, but the reasoning is less academic than that: simpler and closer to home.  It feels good to take those moments to be grateful, and the influence extends past that pre-dinner conversation.  I find now that as I cook dinner, while the front of my mind may be focused on gathering and preparing ingredients, another part is gathering and turning over the potential grattitudes for the day.  In that sort of unconscious sifting, seeking the best grattitude for the day, so many other small ones are identified and acknowledged, too.  

The structure of tying this practice to a meal, something that we do every day, helps enforce the ritual even on days where it takes a little work. Because there are some hard days--days where we sit in silence for a long moment feeling the effort of finding that grattitude. More and more I think those might be the days when it is most important to identify, articulate, and feel it.  The ritual is a reminder that there is always something, even on the hardest of days, to be grateful for.  We've worked in regions where a daily dinner is not a certainty for everyone, and no matter how bad things might be, we know that if we sit down to dinner there is that:  we can be grateful for the food. 

We are grateful, this week, for the food that is still, even now, streaming in from the garden: for hundreds of pounds of squash, potatoes, and more piled up in all corners of home, garage, and barn. We are grateful for friends and neighbors who have come to join us at our table with their thoughts, ideas, and offers of help.  As the garden winds down, we are grateful for all we have learned and grown and harvested from it this season.  

This week we invite you to try the practice yourselves, on your own table.  What are you grateful for today?  Feel free to share your gratitudes in the comments here, or aloud to the people you gather with at your table.  

Plants we love: Gift Garlic

We moved to Missoula last year just a few days after pulling our garlic from the ground in Oregon.  We packed two burlap coffee sacks with green garlic and stuffed them into the U-Haul as the final cargo.  Opening the door of that moving van when we arrived unleashed a powerful and unique smell mixture: garlic, green coffee beans, and waste vegetable oil (fuel for our car). We hung it to finish curing in the entryway of our small summer sublet apartment.  

When it came time to plant garlic last fall, we realized we wanted a crop a good bit larger than what we could spare from our own stocks without being garlic-poor all winter.  We also though it would be good to get something we knew for sure could handle a solid Montana winter.  We got a gift of a mix of hardneck varieties from some friends in Wisconsin who came to visit and even helped us plant last fall.    

Garlic drying in the barn of friends in Wisconsin.  They brought us bulbs to plant from the stock they have been growing for years.  Photo by Noah.

We also asked around for good varieties and good deals from local farmers and were lucky to get ahold of Josh Slotnick just after his crew had planted their garlic at the PEAS Farm, and he gave us a great deal on ten pounds of seed garlic.  He had to think hard about what variety it might have started out as, and we’re still not sure.  He’s been saving the best cloves to replant each year for so long--more than fifteen years--that we just knew it must be pretty well adapted to our area.  It's a softneck, which makes it good for long storage.  The Wisconsin garlic blend were hardnecks--larger cloves with stronger flavors that have added a powerful kick to our pestos this summer.  

If you got a bulb of garlic in your last coffee mailing, it was one of those Missoula softnecks.  We tucked the gifts into the boxes with the special satisfaction of sharing something straight from the soil here.  It grew in the smaller of our two gardens all summer, the first thing that went into the ground in our time on this farm, and the first thing to emerge as a sign of spring.  It cured and dried in the hayloft of the barn this summer and hadn't left the farm till it went to the post office in your box. It's wonderful to cook with of course, but if you haven't eaten the whole bulb yet, consider planting a clove or two for your next summer. It's garlic planting time in much of the US; we'll be getting ours into the ground again sometime soon. We might branch out to a few different known-and-named varieties, but we’ll also stick with some of our unnamed gift varieties that allowed us to store up our largest garlic harvest yet, this year. 

This year's garlic harvest, waiting in the shade to be spread in our hayloft to dry and cure.  We were a little late to harvest, but hope it will still store well. 

On the Table: Kimchee topping a little of everything

We're happily in the season of a little of everything in our meals these days.  More and more of the harvest is piling up inside our house as it comes in from the garden.  And I mean piling up very literally: on shelves, in buckets and boxes and baskets on every surface.  Part of what that means is a fantastic span of ingredients within easy reach.  The other part is that every evening we jump into some sort of food-preserving project, many of which last late into the night.  Someday we may have a root cellar, a greenhouse, or even just more storage space.  But for now, we have 200 pounds of winter squash in the living room and I'm grateful for every one of them.  

For the most part we are not using any of the preserved food yet, just reveling in the freshness still available. It's  a luxury for a quick and easy stir fry to have both red and green onions, green and yellow summer squash, green bell pepper and and red sweet peppers, both. Not to mention the red cabbage and green cabbage...both, and all of it from a browse through the fridge and harvest buckets.   

A simple stir-fry has a full range of colors at this time of year as we have just about everything to choose from.  Late summer garden on brown rice.  Photo by Noah. 

 

Lately that little-of-everything stir fry has been topped with one of our first batches of preserved food:  Kimchee.  We started experimenting with natural fermentation this summer, and on one epic night of pickling in August we made our first batch of sauerkraut and our first venture into Kimchee all at once.  Our friends who came over to help pickle were following more traditional Korean methods for this spicy condiment (including mysterious and partially-translated pepper spice packets sourced from Asian grocers in towns much larger than Missoula) but we went with, as they put it, "the hippie version."

We used the recipe from the "Nourishing Traditions" book that includes Napa cabbage, onions, garlic, hot peppers, carrots, and ginger. We mixed everything with salt and pounded it in a large bowl till the leaves softened and juices start to form.  After that we just packed it into quart mason jars that sat on the counter for 4 or 5 days.  We left town for a few of those days for Noah's birthday--completely unrelated to the fact that the action of the naturally occurring beneficial bacteria that immediately started to work can produce, well, a strong smell.  The neighbor stopping by to feed the cats while we were gone was diplomatic enough not to mention anything.  If you try this, do be warned that the juices will overflow, and you'll have a distinct sour-pickle smell for a few days (but it's really not that bad). And it's worth it!  This batch came out as a refreshing tangy gingery, slightly spicy condiment that we've been putting on top of just about everything.  

Our first batches of Kimchee have been topping a lot of dishes already. The three quarts we made might not last as long as we'd expected.   Photo by Noah. 

Reading Season Signals

On a recent rainy afternoon in this season of shifting weather, we squatted in one of our friend's growing fields at the County Rail Farm in Dixon, Montana.  Margaret and Tracy farm in this fertile valley that has a unique microclimate just a bit different than our own.  While we have had our first hard frost, they are still harvesting some of their crops - rows of cucumbers and greens still wait in the field while squash cure for storage in their green houses. 

Pumpkins Drying in a Hoop House, County Rail Farm.

The weather was typical for these edge of season days, so we huddled in the back of their pickup truck under the drumming rain picking edamame (green soybeans) from boxes of harvested plants.  Later, when the rain lessened, we dug their last potatoes from the ground.  That was one of the only chances we've had, in this busy growing season, to work alongside and reflect with other farmers. Though our own potatoes were still in the ground back home, it felt good to dig alongside them, sharing conversation and growing thoughts as we worked down the row.

Work Party: Harvesting Soybeans from the Vine.

Here in Montana we have to become experts at pushing plants. Vegetables were not all designed to grow in the conditions we raised them in. We try to shift the odds by purchasing seeds from farms who test their vegetable varieties and grow them with the harsh winters of Vermont, Maine and our own valley. And we push the ends of the seasons in each direction, with early indoor starts in the spring and row covers to ward of the frosts both spring and fall.  

Even the simple act of watering separates our garden plants from the yearly rhythms of the native plants and even the untended pasture grasses outside the fence, which  turned their own shades of late-summer gold and brown when the rains slowed down.  We distracted ourselves a bit from the passing season too, within that lush quarter acre of soft greens, tomatoes, peas, and more. Outside the fence, chokecherries ripened, and the grasshoppers hatched, grew, and disappeared.  It's not that  we did not notice any of the seasonal progressions--we saw the spring Draba come and go to seed, noticed the split dry pods of Lupine when we went hiking.  But we also, like the tomatoes, were taken by surprise by that hard frost and end of the warm growing season. 

Maybe with more years here, we will learn the subtle triggers within the garden that the season was winding down. It takes time to learn the small cues, to put them all together.  Mary's fieldwork in native grasslands was a daily immersion in prairie patterns, but it was a few years in before she could recognize, without analysis, that because the Camas pods were dry and rattling, it was time to check for young seeds forming on the Lemonweed plants.  There are probably subtle signals that we have missed, here.  We've missed other triggers, other clues, maybe even mis-judged how long we'd be able to stay here growing on this patch of land. 

Still, when we take time out to harvest the last of this season or sit in our farmers friend's kitchens after a long day of work, we gather what we can. We  go over our mental notes of this past season - what we noticed, the wild successes (green peas for months on end), the wild failures (ask us sometime about that okra crop), and near misses (see our Sheep Chase story), and all that has got away from us.  We talk about the hard things - the lonesomeness that can come with long days out or other work left off the plate;  gifts from neighbors who lent a hand when we needed it most. Farmers do things differently from a lot of people, and now that we've farmed for a year, raising  food for ourselves and our neighbors, we think differently too. We make our own tools, furniture, fixes and even games.

Whiffle Ball with over-ripened cucumbers. 

When we left the campfire the other night, there was singing.  It's hard to leave in the middle of any story, but as we say, we were farmer-tired, already worried about putting in the chickens, and tending to evening chores.  Even though we have cancelled our own harvest party because we aren't sure where we will farm in the years to come, our calendar is full of harvest parties - a place where secrets are shared, plans are hatched, we eat, and know we can begin next day. 

Harvest Party Songs, County Rail Farm.

Neighboring: Dinner Shares

This week, what we share from our table will also be on a table next door as part of a dinner-exchange we started with some friends who live, as we like to say "one pasture over."  These properties used to be connected by family ties, and the path through the pasture is much shorter than the official way around by road and driveways.  It hasn't taken much to refresh that well-worn path with some neighboring including, lately, passing back and forth with food to share, a couple of nights a week.  

The genesis of this weekly routine came from a point that came up on many visits and meals together: we live with small kitchens with no dishwashers, and we all make a lot of dishes.  It came to a peak one night when we gathered in our small kitchen to put up some food together--a madness of chopping, shredding, and mixing to start kimchee and sauerkraut, feeding literally and figuratively off of the combined energy of two households to get us through a massive pile of produce.

We stopped for a moment in that wild pickling evening to eat dinner together before gearing up for the next step.  As we looked around we had to laugh at the state of the place: cutting boards, knives, and bowls had been shuffled to the coffee table to make room to eat at the kitchen table; buckets and boxes of cabbage, onion, and carrots were piled in the corner of the room.  The kitchen sink was topped over, and each work-station at the counter was carved out of a mountain range of dishes and cooking materials.

Cooperative pickling night with neighbors: a kitchen mess not as far out of the daily realm as you might imagine.  Photo by Noah.

And yet, we all had to admit that while this was completely crazy, it was also just an expansion of the ebb and flow of our daily kitchen work.  We cook from scratch, we cook from the garden, and we get caught up in the excitement of good food.  It does make a lot of good work and good food, of course, but also a lot of dishes.  We realized, as we talked, that cooking for four people makes no more cleanup than cooking for two, and we should really all take advantage of that.  

We decided on an exchange where each household would, on one night of the week, cook for both and deliver extra to the other. It gives us each one evening a week of having only the dishes that we eat off of to wash.   We used some guidelines we'd seen from others doing similar exchanges:  no pressure to make anything fancy, no need to stay and visit if evenings were busy.  If someone has other plans or is out of town on drop-off night, they use it the next day.  It's simple, and yet the knowledge that a meal will be delivered and shared has inspired an occasional extra touch and elevates our own eating just a bit.  It might just be taking a moment to arrange sliced tomatoes or a basil garnish across the top of the pasta or to array the red peppers on a  pizza into a star instead of a random toss. At the surface it's just decoration, but underneath it's also a demonstration of caring, and that makes it special. A care that, we remind ourselves in the midst of busyness, uncertainty and stresses, needs to be both taken and received.  

The exchange started because of dishes, but in a small way it is much more, too.  When we deliver the pan of stuffed summer squash across the pasture, there's a pleasure in the feeling of giving and nurturing, of feeding our friends.  When a dish of steaming rice, greens, and chickpeas arrives at our door at the end of a long day, we sit down to it with gratitude that goes so far beyond not needing to clean the kitchen.  It's gratitude for neighbors, for friends, for caring and being cared for in some small way.  

 

When food preservation gets serious, even the shop tools may find their way into the home kitchen:  Noah pounds cabbage for sauerkraut with the large mallet.  This will find its way into a shared neighbor meal soon, after weeks of fermenting in the corner by the bookshelf. 

On the Table: Stuffed Peppers

We knew from the start that the goal of growing most of our own food would inevitably change our eating habits. We don’t want to take on a 100-mile diet experiment or make  cooking and eating into a complicated set of rules.  But we do want to source as much of our daily food as possible from our own growing spaces and gatherings. More and more we find ourselves looking at our plates and saying, with a new sort of satisfaction "wow, we grew all of this."   

We're making a little space here to share with you what finds its way from our gardens to our table as we move through the seasons.  In these posts we'll highlight one meal each week that shows how we are making use of the ingredients we've grown, gathered, and put up. We invite you to join us at the table by trying these meals out yourself, planting some of these ingredients into your next garden, or leaving a comment or link to what is on your own table these days. 

This week, we're sharing these stuffed California Wonder bell peppers.  We consider any good stout mature peppers in Montana to be a wonder, and these, though their name says “California” have done great in our sometimes-chilly valley.  We hope to stretch another week or two of growing season before the big frosts, to let some of them ripen to red (though they are tasting great green, too).

To make this, we took some of our biggest bell peppers and cut off the tops to pull out the seeds and cores.  The inside filling is sautéed from-the-garden garlic, onions, Jimmy Nardello peppers, coriander seed, jalapeños, sweet corn, and black beans (our first effort growing dry beans has also been an exciting venture). Mixed with a bit of brown rice, olive oil, and local cheese (not ingredients we've managed to grow ourselves yet), we stuffed the filling into the peppers, set them upright in a baking dish, and roasted them at 375. Pulled out after 30 minutes, we topped them with fresh tomatoes and the salsa we made while they baked. 

I'm not sure that an advanced wine-and-food connoisseur would chose blackberry wine as the best pairing for this, but, well, it's what we have because it's what we've made!  For these homesteaders at least, the stuffed peppers went beautifully with the Oregon blackberry wine and a slice of homegrown Golden Midget watermelon for dessert.

  

A meal of stuffed peppers, garden melon, and our own blackberry wine, on the barnboard table. Photo: Noah Jackson 

Details: Bumblebee

The big-picture view of the garden is stunning, and we often pause at the gate to take it all in. But there's something special in the close-in details too, which are often found as surprises--like when checking the ripeness of sunflower heads reveals a sleepy, slow-moving bumblebee still curled into the fold of petals.  

The morning garden check found this bumblebee slowly beginning to wake and warm after a night hidden in the sunflower head.  Photo:  Mary Bricker