Saturday, October 20, 2012

Squash time part 3: the devouring (a/k/a what to do with pureed pumpkin and winter squash)

yummy pumpkin pancakes....naked
Pumpkin pancakes, photo credit Flickr user Rice and D, CC licensed
In our last episode of our little squash horror story, we butchered, cooked, and pureed our winter squash/pumpkins.  Now that we all have a freezer full of squash puree, let's talk about what to do with it.  First I'll share some recipes, then I'll talk about pumpkin or squash as pet food.

Squash for humans
The easiest thing to do is to Google your favorite pumpkin recipe.  You can substitute squash puree for pumpkin in any recipe.  Most recipes will call for canned pumpkin, which is usually a little thicker than homemade, frozen puree, so you may want to cut down the amount of water or other liquid you use in the recipe or let your puree drain a bit before using it.  Just experiment to see what works for you.

If you need some ideas for recipes, here are a few of my favorites:
  • Pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin waffles - my husband and son both love these
  • Pumpkin bread - Google around for a recipe that looks good to you
  • Pumpkin cookies
  • Pumpkin pie - of course.  Again, Google around for a recipe that looks good to you.  
  • Pumpkin gnocchi.  I've only made this once, and I think I added too much flour, but they were still yummy with browned butter and crispy sage.
  • Pumpkin cheesecake - I've had it in restaurants but never made it.  Maybe I'll try it this year. 
My friends rave about pumpkin soup, so you could try that too. 

Squash for dogs and cats
Pumpkin or other winter squash can make a great addition to your dog's or cat's diet.  Note: I am not a veterinarian!  I will share my experiences with squash as pet food, but please check with your vet about your pet's specific needs before adding anything to his/her diet. 

First, the felines: We used to have a very fat cat named Ted who would eat everything and was beginning to resemble a furry beach ball.  Our vet advised us to replace some of his cat food with pumpkin, because it's low in calories, and some cats love it.  Unfortunately, our otherwise gluttonous feline didn't like it, but if yours does, go for it. 

Now, the canines: We have two retired racing greyhounds, Fritz and Fergi.  Fritz has colitis, which means that he gets bloody diarrhea periodically along with the smelliest farts on the face of the earth.  The head of our local rescue group recommended pumpkin as a good source of fiber, which might help alleviate these attacks.  We add a couple of dollops of pumpkin puree to his food, and it really does help.  Some dogs love pumpkin and will eat it by itself, but Fritz will only eat it if we stir it into his food.  

On a side note, when we ran out of pumpkin this spring, we tried shredded zucchini, since it has nearly as much fiber.  It seems to work even better.  So if you have a dog with gastrointestinal issues, you can try shredded zucchini in the summer (when it's fresh from the garden) and pureed pumpkin from your freezer the rest of the year. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Squash time part 2: the butchering (a/k/a How to cook and puree winter squash the mostly easy way)

In a post last week, we talked about winter squash (including pumpkins)--weird, warty, wonderful winter squash (including pumpkins).  Hopefully by now you've all come to share my obsession and have acquired a storage shed full of squash.  So go get a few; it's time to butcher 'em, cook 'em, and puree 'em.

Why, you ask, are we murdering innocent squash?  Simple--because they're delicious!  Our goal will be pureed squash, which can be used in lots of ways, which we'll explore in our next post.

Let's get started!  You will need:
  • A pumpkin or other winter squash (or 2 or 10 depending on the size of your oven and your squash).  Note: you can use pumpkins and winter squash interchangeably in recipes, but you'll get the best results with winter squash or cooking/pie pumpkins.  The big jack o'lantern pumpkins can be a bit stringy or watery, and they don't always have the nice orange color we expect from cooked pumpkins.  But you can use them if you want.
  • An oven
  • A big ol' Norman Bates Psycho knife (any large, sharp kitchen knife will do)
  • A smaller, sharp paring knife
  • A baking sheet
  • Some foil
  • A fork
  • A blender or food processor
  • Freezer containers or bags
First, wash your squash (hey, that has a nice rhythm to it...).  You want to remove any dirt or other gunk, so you don't get your baking sheet all dirty.  Then line your baking sheet with foil to make cleanup easier.

Now, put your first, I mean squash, on a solid surface like a kitchen counter or cutting board, and cut it into pieces.  The smaller the pieces, the faster they'll cook, but cutting squash is hard work, so bigger pieces are easier.  Here's what mine usually look like: 

Put the pulp and seeds in a big bowl.  We'll come back to that. 

Put the pieces cut side down on the foil-lined baking sheet.  Why cut side down?  Because if you put them cut side up, they'll develop a leathery coating on the outside that won't make a nice, smooth puree. 

Cut as many squash as your baking sheets and oven will hold.  I cook two baking sheets at a time, because I have two oven racks.  

Set your oven for 350F and bake the squash for about 90 minutes, then check to see if it's done.  How do you check to see if it's done?  You stab it with a big fork!  (C'mon... What did you expect?  A gentle stroking?  This is my blog after all.)  If it's done, it will be very tender.  If it isn't very tender, cook it awhile longer, stabbing it every 20 minutes or so till it's done. 

When the squash is done, take it out of the oven and let it sit till it's cool enough for you to touch.  You can leave it out overnight if you want; just cover it with a towel so no dust or gnats get on it.  

Once it has cooled, grab your paring knife, peel the squash, and cut it into small chunks.  Throw the chunks into a blender or food processor and puree till smooth.  

Package the puree for freezing and (of course) freeze it.  I usually use canning jars for freezing, but you can use freezer containers or freezer bags.  I usually package my squash puree in pints, because most recipes only call for a cup or two of pumpkin/squash.  If you want to freeze your puree in recipe-sized amounts, you can put a cup of puree in a sandwich bag, then put the sandwich bags in a gallon freezer bag.  But that uses lots of plastic, which is a bit wasteful unless you wash and reuse your bags.  

That's it!  

But wait!  What about the seeds?  Squash seeds can be cooked just like pumpkin seeds, and they're just as yummy.  Everyone seems to have their own favorite method for roasting pumpkin seeds; just search online if you need ideas. 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Welcome, monarch caterpillars!

I've been growing milkweed (Asclepius for those who like their botanical names) since we moved into our house two years ago, hoping that some hungry monarch butterflies would stop by, chow down, and lay their eggs.  But alas, no monarchs ever found my monarch fast food joint.  Today, however, my husband rescued an injured native bird, which we took to Wildwings. The folks who run Wildwings had a patch of milkweed near their front door, practically covered in monarch caterpillers.  When they found out I have milkweed, they gave me four of the cute little guys, which have now settled into their new dining hall.  You can see them in the lower part of the picture above.  Aren't they adorable?

For those who don't know, monarch butterflies are gorgeous orange and black butterflies, some of whom migrate thousands of miles every year.  When I was a kid in California's Central Valley, they were common as dirt, because milkweed (the only food their caterpillars can eat) was common as, well, a weed - because that's what it was.  Now that so much land has been built on here in CA, milkweed isn't so common, and the magnificent monarch is much more rare.  Home gardeners can help by planting milkweed, so monarchs will have a place to lay their eggs, and their babies will have something to eat.

You can learn more about monarchs at or, for kids, a neat page on Kidzone about monarchs.  If you want to grow milkweed, you can buy seed on Amazon or EBay.  I got mine from Renee's Garden Seeds.  Just go to this page and scroll down to Asclepius.

Here's one more pic, a closeup of one of our caterpillars.  I hope he inspires you to plant some milkweed next spring.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Squash time!

Marina di Chioggia (front) and Galeux d'Eysines heirloom winter squash
Ah, fall: time for the leaves to turn color (but not here in SoCal), the temperatures to drop (but not here in SoCal), and your Rainy Day Gardener to become obsessed with... winter squash!  We love pumpkins and other winter squashes here at RDG headquarters, and we use them for all sorts of things: fall decor, demented-looking jack o'lanterns, baking, and even dog food (yes, really).  Let's take a look at the many pumpkin possibilities.

Growing them
It's a bit late to plant pumpkins, unless you live in Australia.  But you can start planning for next year.  Anyone can grow a plain o'l orange pumpkin, but we like to be creative.  I first got inspired to grow weird squashes (remember: a pumpkin is just a big winter squash) by Amy Goldman's beautiful book, The Compleat Squash, which I reviewed several years ago:

Now I grow all kinds of funky things, as you can see from the picture at the beginning of this post.  For some reason, I love funny-looking, warty squashes.  If you'd like to grow something besides a plain orange pumpkin, try one of the many heirloom seed vendors, like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  Just take a look at their winter squash selection: lots of warty, funky goodness!

My husband's giant pumpkins.  For him, bigger is always better.
My husband also grows giant pumpkins, which look cool but are a pain to move without a forklift.  We don't do anything special to make them really huge, so ours won't win any prizes.  But if you want to grow the biggest pumpkins in town, check out

If you didn't grow any pumpkins or winter squash this year, don't despair: 'tis the season when pumpkin patches, vegetable stands, and even supermarkets begin stocking various winter squashes, including some weird (and even warty) ones for fall decor.  Some pumpkin patches even sell giant pumpkins, in case you want to impress your neighbors without breaking your back.

The great thing about pumpkins and other winter squash is that they do double duty: they look great on your porch in the fall, and they taste great on your table afterward.  If you have some now, you'll want to keep them someplace fairly cool, so they don't rot too soon.  If you live in the northern part of the country, you can probably leave them outside, as temperatures should be starting to drop (right?).  Just bring them in if there will be a hard freeze.  If you live down here in Hell's Half Acre... er, I mean Southern California, you may want to keep them in your air-conditioned house for a few more weeks.  Did I mention it was 104F last weekend?  Ugh.

One more tip: if you don't mind plain pumpkins, you can often get them free after Halloween, either from pumpkin patches or grocery stores or from your neighbors who didn't carve theirs.  Most jack o' lantern pumpkins aren't as good for eating (they don't all have that rich orange flesh, and some can be a little stringy), but you can eat them, or you can use them for dog food like we do. 

In a follow-up post, we'll talk about what to do with your weird, warty wonders after Halloween/Thanksgiving/whenever you're tired of looking at them.  We'll butcher 'em, cook 'em, puree 'em, and eat 'em or put 'em in the freezer. It'll be like a squash slasher flick!