The final transition into autumn is a special time of year, with trees taking on their colourful hues, temperatures developing a refreshing crispness and the vegetable garden giving one last flourish of productivity before it goes quiet over winter. For me, the undoubted highlight of all this is when the large umbrella-like leaves of pumpkins and winter squash finally die back to reveal the plump fruits beneath. It’s the moment you realise all that growth over the summer months has finally come to fruition.
Some years back I had the fortune to spend a year in America’s Pacific Northwest. The climax of the growing season was a sudden rush of sweet, golden-yellow corn cobs, quickly followed by large, majestic pumpkins transformed into all manner of sweet and savoury treats. My personal favourite was pumpkin pie and if you haven’t tried Barbara’s recipe you’re missing a winner!
Pumpkins and winter squashes capture the flavour and excitement of autumn but if you want to be able to enjoy this weighty bonanza for longer than a few weeks you will need to cure your home-grown fruits. Curing simply involves the hardening the skins to protect the flesh inside from deterioration. Do it properly and you can expect fruits to stay in top form for at least three months and as long as six, comfortably taking you to the first harvests of next spring.
Ripe and Ready Pumpkins and Winter Squash
So how do you know when your pumpkins and winter squashes are ready to be cured? Well, aside from acquiring their mature colour, ripe fruits offer several other clues that the time has come to remove them from the dying plant. The most obvious cue is to look at the stem; if it has died off and turned hard you know that the fruits are ready. Other ways of telling that the moment of truth has arrived is to slap the fruit (it should sound hollow) and to push your thumbnail into the skin, which should dent but not puncture. The youthful sheen of the fruits will have also given way to a duller tone.
Cut your home-grown beauties free complete with 10cm (4in) of stem to ensure a failsafe seal at the top of the fruit. If heavy frosts threaten (a light frost won’t damage fruits) you will need to bring in all of your fruits, even if they are not quite ready. If you find yourself in this predicament don’t worry – just leave a bit more stem, including a 10cm (4in) section of main stem to leave a T-shaped handle. The additional stem will allow the fruit to form a proper seal between the stalk and the top of the fruit all in good time.
Handle your pumpkins and squashes very carefully. Do not be tempted to handle them by the delicate stem, but rather cup your fruits in the palms of your hands – damage at this stage could spell trouble later. The object of the game is to retain a perfectly intact outer skin that remains impervious to outside moulds and fungal spores.
Curing your fruits is a simple enough process but it does take more than a few days. Some of your fruits may be whoppers, so laying down this amount of food for the winter is time well spent. Remove the fruits to a greenhouse or as sunny a windowsill as you can find having first brushed off any dirt. Allow your fruits to sunbathe and develop a tan! This should take about two weeks for the top of the fruit then once (carefully!) flipped over, another two weeks for the bottom. You can, of course, continue to enjoy some of the fruits fresh while you wait.
This somewhat long-winded process has a valuable purpose behind it. As the skins harden up further they create a longer-lasting seal, while the colour of the fruits enriches as they sweeten up and take on a more intense flavour. Once the fruits are cured they can be given one final treatment before they take to the storage shed; a polish of olive oil applied with a cloth to create a moisture-tight finish completes the job.
How to Store your Winter Squash and Pumpkins
Like many fruits and root vegetables stored for the colder months, pumpkins and winter squash prefer a well-ventilated, dry place. But this is where the similarity ends as these thick-skinned customers will happily keep at up to room temperature (20°C/68°F). This means you’ve a choice between keeping them in an out-of-the-way outbuilding or shed (provided it’s frost free), or lined up like plump sentries in a spare room in the house.
Either way, keep the fruits raised up off hard surfaces on racks or wire mesh cushioned with a thick layer of newspaper or straw. Keeping them off the ground will allow air to circulate around the fruits while the extra padding will prevent the skin softening and becoming vulnerable to infection. If you’ve lots of pumpkins or squashes to store don’t be tempted to stack them up – this will generate pressure points and will reduce airflow around the fruits. Store them in a single layer and keep them well clear of other stored tree fruits, which can emit ethylene gas and speed the aging process.
House-stored fruits won’t be easy to ignore but those stored in a shed or garage will need to be checked regularly. Look out for signs of vermin and treat accordingly. Any fruits that look like they’re turning should be used immediately.
Needless to say a store of your own pumpkins or squashes is a very valuable thing. By the end of winter those fruits that are still sound will have concentrated their flavour to taste bud-tantalising proportions. With such an irresistible prospect its worth exercising some restraint and laying down a few fruits for enjoying later on. Every last morsel of sweet, delicious flesh will be worth it!
By Benedict Vanheems.
Image credits: Pumpkin stalk - clkohan, Selection of winter squashes - L'eau Bleue