A Winter Meal From the Garden, Even in March For March

Technically, spring arrived on March 20. Most years I have snowdrops blooming on a south-facing hillside by early March, and some Glory-of-the-Snow in blossom by now. Not this year. Snow is still deep on my property, and nights with temperatures near zero have been common. Sigh. But I have a few plants started by seed growing under lights, to keep me chipper.

I also continue to eat from my garden. Yes, all those frozen and stored veggies keep me well fed and looking forward to this year’s garden. One of the best vegetables I grow is the butternut squash, specifically one called Waltham. It stores well in a cool, dry spot and is full of vitamins and energy. I recently made a butternut and apple soup with one, and it was fabulous. I got the idea from Anne Yates of Anne’s Country Store in Plainfield. She told me what she did (without any measurements), and I created my own version while trying to use just home-grown veggies.

Usually I steam squash to cook it, but Anne said she roasted hers, so I tried that. I cut a large butternut in half lengthwise, cleaned out the seeds and lightly oiled the cut surface. I placed it face down on a cookie sheet and roasted at 350 degrees for an hour or so. This caramelized the sugars and made the squash even sweeter. I scooped out the meat from the skin; it yielded about 3 cups.

I took out a jug of my homemade frozen apple cider from the freezer. I bring apples to my local orchard in the fall, and have them press them (for a price) and put the cider in plastic half-gallon jugs, which I freeze. I added cider (a quart in total) to the squash meat in my food processor and pureed it in a few batches.

Although I do grow fresh ginger in pots, and have some I could have harvested, I had some grocery store ginger that I peeled and chopped for this soup. I prepared a quarter cup of chopped ginger, which I then sautéed with 2 cups of chopped onions at low heat until the onions were clear and somewhat caramelized. After cooking the onions and ginger, I blended them in the processor, and added them to the squash and cider, which was simmering on low heat.

Next, I cleaned up the last of my carrots from the garden; they were starting to look wrinkly and bedraggled in my vegetable drawer. I had about 2 cups of carrots, so that is what I used. I added some to the soup as rounds, some I blended briefly in the processor. I added a cup of chicken broth at this time, though vegetarians could omit this.

Last fall was great for apples, so I froze lots of sliced apples. For this soup I used 4 cups of frozen apple slices with the skins on. I cooked them with a little water in a saucepan until soft, and then blended them into an applesauce-like mixture in the food processor. That produced about 2 cups of applesauce — which you could substitute here if you didn’t have fresh or frozen apples.

After I added the applesauce to the soup, I added a light sprinkle of nutmeg and some salt and pepper. And no, I don’t produce or collect the nutmeg, salt or pepper. There is only so much one can do to eat locally.

When it comes to growing butternut squash, I like to start seeds in the house a month before it is time to put them in the garden. I say a month because conventional wisdom is that squash family plants (including cukes, pumpkins and melons) don’t like to have their roots disturbed. An eight-week-old squash plant has a big root system and might be stunted or slowed in growth when transplanted into the garden. I plant in June after the soil is plenty warm.

The main reason I start squash indoors instead of planting seeds directly in the garden is this: there is a terrible insect pest, the striped cucumber beetle, that loves the tender first leaves of any squash-family plant. They are active at night, and will eat off the first two leaves of a young plant, killing it. But a four-week-old plant will have enough leaves to survive being chewed on by a few beetles.

You can also cover your seedlings with something called row cover or Reemay. It is a breathable fabric that physically keeps the beetles off the seedlings, unless they come up under it (they live in the soil). But I remove the row cover when the vines blossom — they need insects for pollination.

So try making this soup. The ginger gives it quite a kick, but next time I might add some of the hot pepper powder I make each year. And think about growing Waltham butternuts. They take some garden space (I allocate a 5-by-5 foot space for three plants) but are very productive — and tasty, too.

Henry’ Homeyer’s website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of four gardening books and a children’s fantasy-adventure about a boy with a mustache and his sidekick, a cougar.