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.
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.)
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’ and ‘Red Kuri’ 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 puréed. 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.
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.)
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.
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.
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