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Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 12:01 am

What’s a cucurbit?

Mary Iris and Scarlett Selinger picking out their pumpkins at the Great Pumpkin Patch
Photo BY PETER GLATZ

 

While attending one of Urbana’s Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery’s Farm To Table Dinners, I asked owner Leslie Cooperband if I could “stage” (work as an unpaid apprentice) for one of their events. Guest chefs, often from Chicago, would come down to the farm to create amazing meals, eaten communally outdoors. I was hoping my participation would lead to opportunities to stage at some of Chicago’s finer restaurants. I was a bit disappointed when she told me I could work the Cucurbit dinner. Cucurbit? I wasn’t even sure what cucurbits were – and instead of a big-name celebrity chef from Chicago, the meal would be prepared by the house chef. The special guest was a farmer from the Great Pumpkin Patch near Arthur.

Learning that cucurbits were pumpkins, squash, gourds and cucumbers did not do much to ignite my enthusiasm. However, shortly into the work experience, I realized a whole new culinary world was opening up to me. I found out that the special guest, Great Pumpkin Patch owner Mac Condill, was perhaps the world’s greatest authority on cucurbits and was a major player in preserving agricultural diversity as a seed-saver. His knowledge, passion and engaging personality quickly won me over.

We prepared appetizers with thin slices of pickled squash. We made butternut squash soup with miso. We roasted crescent-shaped slices of thin-skinned delicata squash. We barbequed whole kabocha squashes in embers.  Squash even formed the basis for dessert: “A selection of Prairie Fruits Farm Cheese with Squash Preserves and Squash Membrillo, Squash Seed Cracker.”  I enjoyed helping to prepare the farm dinner so much I volunteered to help Prairie Fruits Farm cater a special dinner event the next day at the Great Pumpkin Patch near Arthur.

Prairie Fruits Farm allowed me to camp overnight in Bertha Bus outside the goat barn. After being on my feet for two days chopping and slicing, the cool September night on the prairie quickly lulled me into a deep slumber. I was awakened at sunrise by the sounds of roosters crowing and babies crying. It took a moment to figure out where I was and that the “crying babies” were actually goats.

I was up before the kitchen staff arrived so I checked the prep list and picked cherry tomatoes and edible flowers from the kitchen garden and made a frittata for the morning crew.

After everyone arrived we finished last-minute prep and loaded my bus with tubs of food and headed out to Amish Country. As Bertha Bus neared its destination we encountered Amish horse-drawn buggies. When I arrived at the Great Pumpkin Patch I felt like I was at a homespun version of “Disneyland on the Prairie.”

In 1859, Frank McDonald, an immigrant from Scotland, came to east central Illinois near Arthur to purchase land through the Homestead Act and started a family farm that has been in the family for six generations. In 1967, his great-granddaughter, Mary Beth, married Bruce Condill and after serving together for a year in the Peace Corps in Uganda, Mary Beth and Bruce returned to the family homestead in 1971 to begin their family.

In 1977, Mary Beth planted a few pumpkin seeds in their children’s garden. Now, 29 years later, their son Mac owns The Great Pumpkin Patch and is growing 63 acres of pumpkins, squash and gourds.  It has become a major agritourism destination with over 60,000 visitors a year. The farm was featured in the October 2005 edition of Martha Stewart Living and Mac appeared on Martha’s show. In 2009, he convinced the Obama White House that it needed an outdoor Halloween display and drove a U Haul trailer loaded with pumpkins down Pennsylvania Avenue. After having his load inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs, Mac and his family erected a towering pumpkin display on the White House lawn and helped the Obamas pass out treats to 2,000 trick-or-treaters.

The plant family Cucurbitaceae is one of the most diverse on the planet with more than 2,000 varieties. The Great Pumpkin patch grows over 400 varieties of cucurbits from over 30 countries. And I wanted to try them all! As I loaded my wagon with over $60 worth of exotic squash and pumpkins I felt a bit of guilt. I was always critical of my wife’s tendency to buy more produce at farmers markets than we could ever consume. What was I going to do with over 30 pounds of warty multicolored squash?

Fortunately winter squash keeps well for three months or more if stored in a basement where circulation is good and the air is cool and dry. The higher the temperature, the greater the weight loss due to respiration and water loss.

Caution should be exercised when cutting up large winter squash. It takes considerable force to cut through the hard skin and your fingers will be at risk of dismemberment. The preferred method is to lift the squash over your head and drop it to the floor over newspapers; it will break apart into large chunks.

The following recipe may leave you with extra squash left over. Place the extra chunks, cut side down on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven and bake for 25-45 minutes, or until tender. Scoop out cooked meat and blend until smooth, adding a little water until you reach your desired consistency. Freeze in plastic containers or zip-top freezer bags.

CURRIED WINTER SQUASH
AND APPLE BISQUE

• 1 large winter squash
• 3-4 tart apples such as Jonathan or Granny Smith
• 6 cups chicken stock, plus additional if needed
• 1 ½ cup thinly sliced onions
• 1 tablespoon minced ginger
• 1 tablespoon coconut oil
• 1 cup coconut milk
• 1 tablespoon curry powder
• Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Peel the squash and scoop out the seeds. Cut into 1-inch chunks.  You should have about 6 cups. Winter squash vary a lot in size, so if you have less, cut back proportionately on the other ingredients.  Peel and core the apples and cut into chunks.  

In a large Dutch oven, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the onions and ginger, stir to coat and cover the pan.  Sweat the onions and ginger until they are softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the squash and apples and pour in the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pan and cook for 20-30 minutes, or until the squash and apples are completely cooked.

Purée the mixture with a hand held blender, food processor, blender or food mill.  Cool the mixture before using the blender or food processor – hot ingredients can “explode” in them.  

Return the mixture to the pan whisk in the coconut milk and curry powder. Season to taste with the salt and freshly ground pepper.
This recipe freezes well.  
Serves 6-8.

Contact Peter Glatz at docglatz@gmail.com.

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