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Squashes | New World Seeds & Tubers

Pie filling and seeds from the same plant.

As far as I’m aware, a “pumpkin” is a squash with the classic flattened-globe shape and maybe some ribs. But if you’re buying seeds, be aware if you’re not already that you don’t look under “pumpkin” you look under “squash”; the “pumpkins” are usually just for making jack-o-lanterns.

Jack-o-lantern pumpkins are usually big and hollow, and have poor quality, flavorless, stringy flesh. This isn’t always true, but it’s often true.

Another group of pumpkins that lack tasty flesh are the oilseed pumpkins–the Ölkürbis originally from Styria, Austria.

I’m not sure why oilseed pumpkins are hull-less. You can extract oil from sunflower seeds without having to remove the shells. I’m also curious if pumpkin seeds are hard to crack open mechanically. They probably end up with too many crushed seeds, but I don’t know the answer.

Pumpkinseed oil is a luxury salad oil often compared to olive oil, but it is more expensive, and furthermore its oil composition is sufficiently different that it can’t be used the same way. You can fry with olive oil, but delicate pumpkinseed oil can’t tolerate that much heat; it’s too highly polyunsaturated.

So it’s always eaten raw. Interestingly, it also shows up as a topping for deserts such as ice cream, and on yoghurt. Some day I’d like to try that, when I have enough pumpkinseed to spare some plus an oil press.

In many countries, the seeds are available intact to be eaten whole. In Germany they’re apt to show up in or on bread, and in many other countries they’re lightly toasted and eaten as a snack or a garnish for soups or salads.

How about having it both ways: naked seeds AND palatable flesh?

I don’t think one particularly precludes the other: pumpkins make seeds whether they have tasty flesh or not. Those seeds could be just as well naked as not.

There might be a cost in terms of extremes of productivity. Probably a pumpkin can only make so many oily and protein-rich seeds before it doesn’t have enough energy left for making sugar and starch. Nevertheless there’s plenty of room to compromise; a lot of squashes with delicious flesh also have plenty of seeds.

The actual obstacle is genetically combining both traits. If the naked-seed trait involved a single allele of a single gene, then you could cross the oilseed pumpkin to something tastier, and even if that gene were recessive you could get it back in 2 generations.

Unfortunately, the naked-seed trait involves several genes. Nobody seems to know how many, but guesses have put the number as high as 6. At least some of them are recessive. It takes a lot of crosses and a lot of searching through a lot of progeny to find the right combinations again.

That said, it’s been partially done. There have been a number of squashes bred with flesh that is at least somewhat palatable, as well as having seeds with thin papery hulls.

Oddly they don’t seem to last long in the market. I’ve been able to find exactly 2 of them, and one was a gift from someone who had them left over from a breeding project (thank you, Bret). A lot of them seem to have come and then gone extinct.

My guess is that there isn’t much demand for them. One problem might be lack of demand from commercial growers; most backyard crops are the same ones grown commercially, though often lagging a few generations (a tomato starts out as a commercial tomato, then about 40 years after it is no longer grown commercially it’s declared an “heirloom” among backyard growers, not a joke…). A commercial grower would rather have one trait or the other, not both.

So this is strictly a backyard crop. But that’s one of our specialties, so I’m willing to take the chance.

A smaller market may have doomed the concept to not enough breeding work to finish the job. A few weeks ago I harvested the ones I grew, and the verdict is in: the flesh is more watery than I would like, not as sweet and fine-grained as I would prefer, and the seeds are not fully hull-less.

The whole thing is a mediocre compromise.

I made a pie out of it. The batter was not too bad after being sweetened (took more sugar than I usually used), spiced, and blended with evaporated milk and eggs. I had to run it through a blender to get it smooth.

Because it took a long time to evaporate down enough to set, it ended up with a big fissure down the middle.

We just had the pie tonight; it was better than I expected considering the mediocre quality of the flesh. One slice of it is pictured above, and those are some of the seeds from the same pumpkin.

I notice that some seeds have less hull than others. So I bet if I grew enough of them I could probably select for more thoroughly hull-less seeds, and also for bigger seeds. Bigger seeds would be better more for growing than for eating; the bigger reserves give them more of a head-start.

I don’t know how to improve the flesh. I’m not a crop breeder–and this is my project not Tom’s; his plate is already full.

I’ll have to check Dr. Carol Deppe’s two books on amateur plant-breeding. Squashes are one of the crops she covers in detail in these two books. She likes squashes for all the same reasons that I do: it’s a good nourishing, tasty food that comes self-storing right off the vine. Hull-less types are Cucurbita pepo, whose fruit does not keep as long as those of maximas and moschatas (for which reason some folks want to call them “autumn squashes” instead of “winter squashes”), but I’ve eaten them as late as February.

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Pilar summer/winter squash

Tom says “We’re not real big squash eaters”.

He’s referring to himself and his wife; at our house my family and I could eat hundreds of them a year if we had that many.

The winter type is a tolerably nutrient-dense food in a convenient package that will store on a shelf at room-temperature for months to even up to YEARS for some types of moschatas.

Summer squashes aren’t as nutritious, and they don’t store without some preparation. Best way to preserve them is probably by drying them. You could probably make fermented pickles out of them but being watery they’re probably not the best candidates. Any other way isn’t very cost-effective.

What summer squash are good for is quick-and-easy green or yellow vegetable. Though not very substantial, like an eggplant they’re surprisingly versatile. They make good tempura, which made me think they might make a good substitute for eggplants in making Eggplant Parmasian, and sure enough I found several recipes for exactly that idea and if it works I’ll post a recipe for Zucchinetta Parmagiana. I’ll have to try that; summer squash is a lot easier to grow and more productive in my climate than eggplants are.

Tom’s favorite squash is one that he saw growing last year on various CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farm) including one belonging to one of his associates. It’s grown primarily as a summer squash, but the fruit is quite edible fully ripe making it a good dual-purpose squash: just grow lots of them, harvest as many of the un-ripe fruits as you need during the summer, and let the rest ripen fully for winter squash.

It has shown up under any of several names:

Zapallo
Zapallito
Zapallito de Redondo
Zapallito de Tronco
Redondo de Tronco

etc. Apparently labeled by people who do not speak Spanish. The correct description should be

“Zapallito Redondo de Tronco”

Which means “Round Maxima-type summer squash”.

But that’s the description not the name! The name is “Pilar”, which means “Pillar”, which means I have no idea how people come up with these counter-intuitive names.

The plant is a little round “bush” type. “Pilar” sounds like it should be upright.

My guess is that someone read the description off the packet of seeds (because that’s exactly what the packets say), and mistook that for the name. The company that sold it put the name in smaller type than the description on the seed packets.

It’s from Argentina, and was bred right outside of Buenos Aires. For a squash that comes from a climate comparable to Florida’s, it performs surprisingly well up here, in fact it was our top performer this year.

It’s just a healthier, more vigorous bush than a typical squash up here. Performs more like an F1 hybrid even though it is open-pollinated. The ones on my farm look great, and even the ones in my front yard (yes, I’m one of those people) look good despite less-than-optimal conditions.

It’s a maxima-type summer squash, which is practically unknown in the USA aside from this import, but they’re common in South America which is not too surprising because that’s the part of the world where maximas apparently originated. Tastes similar to Zucchini but different shape and slightly different texture.

They’ve got a very nice round, pumpkin shape with shallow ribbing.

Kudos to the breeders; I think they did a good job on it.

It’s the only squash that performed well enough this year to have enough to sell our own seed. Tom thinks it should be enough, because he really likes this variety from both growing and eating standpoints. I could buy seed of other varieties in bulk but it might not be worth it because our squash seed sales were not brisk anyway. I think the only way to get more customers to buy squash is to tempt them with a variety of beautiful and unusual-looking squashes.

If and when we do sell other squash seeds it will probably be of our own varieties. We have some specific traits we’re looking for, that I’m not finding in any squash I’ve trialed so far. This is tough country for squashes, so we ask a lot of our squashes.

One of several showstoppers beyond climactic adaptability has been keeping quality; it’s often not as good as advertised. Modern food distribution networks utilize refrigeration and freezing, so squashes have not been selected for long keeping qualities, overall, for generations. There are still long-keepers out there, but finding one suitable for our climate has been a challenge. The best keepers overall are the moschatas (and even they vary), and they like more heat than we can give them. In a good year we can ripen the earliest of them, but this was a bad year and we had a total crop failure.

Some people wonder why we bother. Well, for one thing, back in the day, there used to be a market for regionally-adapted crops, and we suspect that in the eventual breakdown of a globalized food production system that is stretched too thin, there might be one again some day.

For another, this is sort of like the New York City of tomatoes and squashes: if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

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Our short list of summer and winter squashes is back online, available for purchase again.

With an inventory of exclusive novelty potatoes and tomatoes, the squashes don’t get as much attention (though we do have a few varieties that are in short supply elsewhere this year). The reason we grow squashes is because they are highly nutritious and “self-store”. You just “cure” them in the sun for a week or so, then store them on a shelf with no further processing.

Unfortunately as we have learned from first-hand experience, winter squashes don’t necessarily store as long as advertised. I’ve realized for a long time now that pepo types (acorns, delicatas, New England pie, etc) do not keep as long as maximas or moschatas, but some people emphasize this point by calling them “autumn squashes” instead of “winter squashes” (that said, I’ve pushed my luck and kept some types until late February with no trouble).

But even many maximas have storage issues; because of large-scale cold storage of other crops, there has not been enough motivation to keep selecting them for long storage, therefor, some don’t store well at all. Often the sellers don’t realize this because they open the squashes and clean and dry the seeds for sale immediately. Also, lacking old-fashioned expectations of storability, many people think that keeping for a few months after harvest means they’re “good keepers”.

We’ve noticed the problem and we’re trying to do something about it, starting with some better keepers, and keeping them selected for long-storage capabilities. We’re currently lining up some interesting and useful varieties for next year.

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