It’s that time of year when we reverse the fits and starts of spring — when winter was forced to relinquish its hold and days of warmth snuck in, giving us a glimpse of the warmer days to come.
Now, we are on the other end of that equation. The first official day of autumn (Sept. 22 — the autumnal equinox) has come and gone. It was only two or three weeks ago when the air conditioner was running full blast and work in the yard was best done at sunrise or near sunset.
Then, wham, low temps, rain, rapidly shortening days, the sun lower in the sky and warmth fighting to hold on. Such are the cycles of life.
With fall comes the annual pumpkin spice rage. Coffee aficionados wait all year for their favorite coffee house to offer the fall flavors. It’s become so big at Starbucks that they have created a three-letter acronym for it: PSL — for pumpkin spice latte.
I’m not making this up. I just saw the banner at a grocery store Starbucks. In fact, there’s a “street” term for pumpkin spice: “pumpspi.”
The consumer’s appetite for pumpkin spice has resulted in some strange iterations. There’s the expected range of coffee and tea drinks (along with creamers). But, that’s just the beginning.
Pumpspi versions also come with bagels, cookies, baking chips (another version of chocolate chips), donuts, candy corn, Hershey’s kisses, marshmallows, Oreo cookies, protein shakes, tortilla chips (yum), gum, pasta, soy and dairy milk, yogurt, Welch’s sparking juice, cream cheese, pudding, breakfast cereal and, yea, behold, even body wash and soap.
Why, there’s even vodka and other hard liquors with that hint of fall. And, this isn’t even an exhaustive list; the product offerings grow every season.
There is even a New Jersey pizza restaurant chain where you can now get pumpkin spice pizza. Villa Italian Kitchen’s ad states, “We know you crave that warm pumpkin spice flavor at this time of year. So we’ve created a delicious marriage of a classic Villa Italian Kitchen cheese pizza and all the cozy, seasonal flavors of fall just for you.”
While it appears it may be a hit with customers, there has been strong negative reaction on both national morning talk shows and social media. One comment quipped that this was the “definition of crimes against carbohydrates.”
Meanwhile, back here in the “real” world, I got some of my garden in a bit late this year, so I’m racing to harvest before the killing freeze hits (and we came darn close last week). The tomatoes are still bulking and coloring up, other produce I am watching are my bell peppers, some corn and I need to do one last final cutting of basil to dry for the winter that will hold us over until next season.
This year we’ve enjoyed some great eggplant, zucchini, jalapenos, garlic, kale, onions and a new addition; Crenshaw cantaloupe. The last one was such a pleasant and delectable surprise that I’ll dedicate a column soon to this melon.
We also planted quite a bit of winter squashes. Summer squashes, such as zucchini and yellow crookneck squash are tender-skinned and when harvested young, can be eaten whole. Heck, even overly mature ones can have the seed cavity scooped out and the flesh chunked up and roasted or sautéed.
These types of veggies are prolific and rapid producers, so they need to be monitored for optimum harvesting. I try to pick them when they are about eight-inches long.
Winter squashes are a different animal (I mean vegetable), and thankfully so. They have a durable shell that gives them excellent storing power without a lot of fuss and it also gives us some fantastic eating over the dark winter months. If these types of squashes weren’t the original comfort foods, they came a close second.
Hubbard, acorn, butternut, buttercup, spaghetti and yes, pumpkin, are all winter squashes. If they are allowed to cure correctly, the end will seal up to create an environment where the flesh inside the squash remains fresh and delectable. As long as the squash is stored in a cool and dark place, is properly hardened off, the storage time can be extended.
The idea is to slow down the squash’s respiration rate. However, if the squash freezes, it will turn to mush as soon as it warms up just a bit. Anyone that has left out a carved jack o’ lantern to freeze knows this first hand.
The optimum storage temperature is around 50 to 55 degrees.
Before putting these squashes into storage, they need to cure correctly. This is known as “hardening off” the squash. Fortunately, this is easy to do.
First, harvest a ripe squash by cutting the stem with either kitchen scissors or pruning shears two inches from the top of the squash. The reason is simple — you want to avoid tearing the base of the stem where it attaches to the squash. If torn, it will compromise the storing ability of that fruit and microorganisms will likely enter the wound to start the spoiling process.
Now, put the squash in a warm, dry area for 10 to 14 days. This step reduces the moisture content (and the chances of rot), intensifies the flavor (by concentrating natural sugars) and slows the fruit’s respiration rate (increasing storage time).
You can tell a winter squash is ripe by attempting to push your finger into the shell. If it gives easily and you can readily dent the surface, it’s not ripe yet. Wait to harvest if the weather permits.
If the shell is hard and you can’t easily dent it, harvest it.
What happens if the frost hits before your squash is ripe? Good news, the squash can be easily ripened off the vine using a simple technique.
First, harvest all the sizable squash, taking care to cut the stem as outlined earlier. Wash all the soil from the squash and dry it. Bring it inside and put it in a sunny spot on a table.
Place the squash’s green side to the sunlight and watch the magic happen. If the entire squash is green, simply rotate it daily until the squash is ripened.
As for expected storage times, Bonnie Plants’ website says it varies by squash variety. Acorn squash will store the shortest amount of time — four weeks. Spaghetti squash comes in longer at four to five weeks.
Buttercup jumps up to 13 weeks (a quarter of a year). Butternut stores up to six months and blue hubbard comes in slightly higher — six to seven months.
It’s interesting with all the pumpkin spice mania, it’s not the flavor of pumpkin itself that people crave. Field pumpkins, commonly used for carving and decorations, are not very flavorful and tend to be stringy when reduced for fillings. In fact, the USDA allows a loose definition of pumpkin that includes winter squashes.
Pumpkin pie filling in a can contains mostly squash varieties that are less stringy, brighter orange in color, and taste very similar to what we think pumpkin should taste like. The pumpkin flavor that people crave this time of year is actually the spice mix not the pumpkin taste. It’s a mixture of ground cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves.
You can buy it readymade, or easily make your own.
While we’ve got some pumpkins ready to harvest, I’m undecided if they will be purely decorative, or if they’ll find their way into our diet. If I don’t eat them, the chickens will — they like the seeds, pulp and bright orange flesh, and it’s been said it’s a natural de-wormer for them.
Me? I enjoy pumpkin spice, but I’m over this current craze. Soon eggnog will be readily available, and that’s something to really get excited about.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.