Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Eating Seasonally versus Growing Your Own Food

You would think that growing your own food would force you to eat seasonally. Of course, it's a great idea to eat seasonally even if you don't grow your own food. Eating strawberries and asparagus in spring, peaches in summer, and winter squash and apples in fall makes sense because if you eat things out of season, where is that food coming from? If you buy strawberries in winter, that probably means they've been shipped from a long way away where the temperatures are warm enough to grow strawberries at that time, maybe even all the way from the southern hemisphere, where the seasons are opposite ours. That long distance shipping results in higher prices, higher amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and less freshness since it's been sitting in a truck, boat, or train for a longer time.

Since it used to be that you didn't even have the option of getting food out of season, a lot of our food traditions evolved around this reality. After all, you eat pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes on Thanksgiving, and strawberry shortcake around Easter, not the other way around, right?


Well, not if your winter squash and sweet potatoes are still hanging around come Easter!

These are the sweet potatoes I have left in the garage. To the left are some Nancy Halls, in the middle are some Vardamans, and to the right are White Yams. The first two varieties are starting to sprout. I think that was triggered by some warm temperatures we've had. I have more potatoes that I've been keeping in the house to sprout on purpose, so I might not need more. I wonder if I can still eat these sprouted ones.

By the way, I intended to do some sort of review of the flavors of the different sweet potato varieties I grew once they cured, but never got around to it. I'll just tell you what I've been able to figure out so far. The first thing I cooked them in was a dish of Bourbon Sweet Potatoes for Christmas dinner. Oh man, they were yummy! My family was a little confused because I mixed the different colors together, so at first they thought I had mixed sweet potatoes and regular potatoes together. They didn't know that white sweet potatoes existed, and it became a "teaching moment". Even though all my varieties were mixed together, I did notice some flavor and texture differences between them. The one that standed out the most was White Yam. It cooked up much firmer and drier than the other sweet potatoes. I made a big dish of these, and ended up with leftovers, which I froze for later use. We'll get to those later.

With the knowledge that White Yam was unusually dry for a sweet potato, and being bright white in color, I used some more of them to make sweet potato fries (to go with some delicious grass fed beef burgers). Sweet potato fries seem to be a popular food trend, and I've eaten them in restaurants and made them myself with store bought sweet potatoes. However, I have had trouble with homemade sweet potato fries being too soft and mushy compared to regular potato fries. Still tasty, but it's hard to get them to crisp up at home where I don't have the luxury of a commercial deep fryer and am doing them in a cast iron skillet.

White Yam makes excellent fries! Just as I thought, the dry texture held up much better and resulted in crispy, golden fries that looked just like fries made from a Russet. They still tasted a bit sweet, though. I'd like to find some more dry, white sweet potato cultivars that are less sweet and do even better as a Russet substitute. Not that there's anything wrong with Russets, but sweet potatoes grow much better in my climate.

Now, back to my frozen Bourbon Sweet Potatoes from Christmas. This is the cake that I made for the Spring Equinox. I got the idea that I could make a sweet potato cake using a recipe for carrot cake but with sweet potatoes instead of carrots. I thawed and then mashed up the Christmas sweet potatoes and used those. Yes, sweet potatoes for spring!

I would say the sweet potato cake needs some tweaking, though. I subsituted 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes for 2 cups of shredded carrots in the recipe, baked it the same, but also tried to make a layer cake rather than baking it in a 9 x 13 pan. Even after passing the toothpick test, when we cut the cake it had a very dense, almost pudding-like texture (like an English baked pudding, not a Jell-O pudding), and it was VERY heavy carrying it in and out of the fridge. My fiance, Daniel, loved it, and would scarf down huge slices and make himself sick on it. I thought it was tasty too, but I think I would like a lighter texture. Carrot cake is supposed to be dense anyway, more like a muffin than a cake, but this was a little too far. I think it might be because 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes does NOT equal 2 cups of shredded carrots in texture or density. Maybe next time cut it down to only 1 or 1 1/2 cups?

I think I did do well to reduce the amount of sugar in the original recipe by half a cup to make up for the leftover sweet potatoes already having sugar in them. Plus, even before when I made this recipe with carrots, it was still a bit too sweet for my tastes.

Also, for purely aesthetic reasons, this cake would have done better in a 9 x 13 inch pan. The cream cheese frosting from the original recipe was not enough to cover a layer cake, and would have to have been doubled. It probably would have been enough to just cover the top of a rectangular cake left in the pan. Also, wrangling such a dense, moist cake was difficult, another reason to just leave it in the pan. I tore it up a bit trying to unmold it and stack it. I did put some Easter-themed sprinkles on top to try to make it at least a little pretty!

Overall, a worthy baking experiment, but not a total success. The flavor was good, but the texture needs work.
I've also still got a LOT of cushaw squash left! I almost made yet another pumpkin pie for Ostara instead of the sweet potato cake, but I make three or four pumpkin pies last fall and winter and am still kind of sick of them. Here you see two of the squashes I still have, plus a couple of jars of seeds I've also been collecting. Each squash has 1-2 cups of seeds in it. I've set a few aside for replanting (a few each from the nicest squashes), but that still leaves an amount of seeds that I could never replant again in my lifetime!

So I'm going to eat them! Most people know about roasting the seeds out of your Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins, which I have done, but I think I want to further explore the culinary possibilities of pumpkin/squash seeds. They're popular in Mexican cuisine, even more popular than the flesh of the squash itself. They have some squash varieties (also in the cushaw species) that are grown just for the seeds alone, which are called "pepitas" in Spanish. Pepitas are ground up to make a delicious green sauce called pipian. It's not that well known north of the border, but I've had it before in some nicer Mexican restaurants and would love to try making my own. It goes well with chicken.

You can also use pumpkins seeds as a substitute for nuts or sunflower seeds in many recipes. Alton Brown's pumpkin bread recipe uses pumpkins seeds instead of the walnuts found in many other recipes, and I seem to remember him mentioning on one of his shows that you can make pumpkin seed brittle instead of peanut brittle, which sounds great.

The main obstacle I can see here is that the pumpkin seeds are supposed to be shelled. You can snack on pumpkin seeds with the shells on and either bite them off one by one, or eat them shell and all, but I don't think that would work with making pipian or any sweet confections. The shells are very fiborous. I've heard that they used to be used as a cure for intestinal parasites! All that fiber scrapes your insides clean!

After much Googling, the only method I can find is to put the seeds in a bag and pound them with a rolling pin. This is supposed to crack the shells. Then you put them in a bowl of water, and the shells are supposed to float while the kernels sink. Except all the references I've found for this method seem to be from people who just heard that somewhere and haven't tried it themselves. I hope it really does work. I'm afraid the shells might not seprate as easily as they're supposed to, and that the kernels inside might be pulverized to bits. I guess I'll find out, but I'm not shelling my seeds until right before I want to cook with them. The shells keep them fresh longer. I'll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, I've still got 12 squashes left in the garage. They still seem perfectly fine, and I wonder how long they will last until they finally rot. They will rot eventually, right? The garage is still cool now, but by summer it gets very hot in there, into the high 90's. It may work as a vegetable storage area for now but not forever, so I've been working on roasting, pureeing, and freezing the rest of my squashes. I can only fit two in the oven at a time, so that's why I'm getting started now. I guess I could keep one around and see how long it takes to rot, but I'm probably too chicken to. The thought of one of these large squashes going rotten in the garage does not seem pleasent.
Here's the squash puree I've already done. I've been putting it in these reusable plastic containers that some brands of lunchmeat come in. I like being able to buy that brand and then reusing the packaging. They work great for freezing things in. I get around three of these containers per squash. That is a LOT of squash puree. I am never growing nine cushaw vines in one year ever again!

Actually, it may be a while before I grow cushaw squash at all again, with how much squash I'm going to have in the freezer. This year I plan on only growing summer squash and maybe butternuts. Summer squash is a completely different food, and butternuts are more useful in different recipes than cushaws. Cushaws are very sweet but very stringy, so they're good for things that need pureed squash, like pies and muffins. Butternuts are not very sweet, but have a nice smooth texture, so they're better in savory dishes where the squash is left in chunks.

Yeah, I think I'm good on squash puree for another year, if not for a few more years!


  1. I've been using my lack of basement as an excuse for not storing a sweet potato/squash/potato harvest. I do have a garage, though! Is your garage insulated at all? What kind of temperature swings do you have in there?

    Great blog. I'll be stopping by again!

  2. My garage is not insulated. It used to be, but the insulation got ripped out at some point. My house is a rent house, and it looks like once they were trying to do some rennovations, but ran out of money or something. So the garage got the insulation ripped out but not replaced, my kitchen cabinets don't match, etc.

    I have a thermometer in the garage, and it ranges from not-quite freezing in the winter to the high 90's in the summer. So it works for storing veggies in the winter, and during hard freezes we drag my potted dwarf citrus in there to protect them, but in the summer it gets way too hot for anything delicate.

    I do also have a refridgerator in there that doesn't work very well anymore and only gets down to 45 degrees or so. That is not cold enough for normal use, but it might be ok to use as a fake root cellar. Right now I'm using it to store extra flour, grains, spices, etc. that don't really need to be refrigerated, but are better if they are.

  3. Sounds like the environment in my garage. It's really helpful to know that your squash and sweet potatoes made it through until April! one less excuse!