When the days grow short and get dark early and blustery winter weather sets in, it's time to tuck in the garden beds, oil and store the tools, and generally take a break from outside chores. Even in a relatively mild climate where you can garden nine months of the year, the fall plantings are settled in to overwinter, bulbs are planted and you can turn your attention to the holidays ahead.
As dedicated kitchen gardeners know, the season's festivities are the perfect time to enjoy some of the vegetables and herbs Grow and harvest in autumn for satisfying winter meals. With storage crops of hard-shelled winter squash, miniature pumpkins, garlic, potatoes and holiday fruits you can make wonderful cold-weather feasts to enjoy with family and friends.
Winter squashes like butternut and buttercup are not only deliciously nutty and sweet, but also terrific sources of fiber and the sunshine vitamin A that is often in short supply in winter. They are easy to cook up in a variety of simple and fine-flavored dishes both sweet and savory.
For holiday meals, a casserole of baked squash is always a favorite. Wash a whole squash, seven or eight inches in diameter, and cut five or six slits in the top and sides. Put it in the oven at 375 degrees for an hour (or microwave for about 30-40 minutes) until the flesh is soft and tender.
Cool and cut open. Remove the seeds and scoop out the flesh. Mash up the flesh with a potato masher adding in real maple syrup or honey, a generous sprinkling of cinnamon, a pinch of salt, and a dollop of sweet butter. Pack into a pretty deep casserole dish, dot with a few more teaspoons of butter and bake it at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes or until the squash has thickened and begins to brown on the edges. Winter squash also pairs beautifully with the savory flavor of sage. For an Italian-style holiday treat, try this sautéed squash dish to complement holiday roast pork, goose, or turkey.
You'll find the slow cooking process brings out all the sugars of the sweet squash to combine deliciously with aromatic sage. Remove the rind and seeds from butternut or buttercup squash and cut the flesh in 1-inch chunks until you have about three cups. Heat three tablespoons of oil in a deep skillet and add a large clove of garlic, finely chopped.
Toss in the squash chunks and cook very slowly, stirring often, for about 25-30 minutes until the squash is golden and tender. (Add a spoon or two of water during cooking if the squash begins to stick.) Season with salt and pepper to taste and then add in a generous tablespoon of chopped fresh sage or two teaspoons of crumbled dry sage. Mix well and serve piping hot. This dish has a rich flavor and heavenly aroma that will entice even vegetable shy diners.
Little pumpkins are fun to eat for holiday meals after you've enjoyed them for Halloween! Cut off the tops and remove the seeds, then stuff them with a sausage, herb and bread crumb mixture and bake, basting with broth. Other ways I like to use these cute four-inch pumpkins is to cook them unstuffed until tender and use as individual soup bowls for creamy soups, or fill them with homemade cranberry sauce or little glazed boiled onions to garnish a roast chicken or turkey.
Your autumn harvest of garden grown potatoes can make you a star cook at the holidays. Cut them up and combine with whole peeled garlic cloves and a few tablespoons of chopped rosemary and toss with good fruity olive oil. Roast them at 375 degrees until crusty on the outside and tender inside, then season with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle over a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar just before serving. The rich sweet garlic and fluffy nutty potato flavors are marvelous together.
Or use some of your garden's bounty to make delicious mashed potatoes with roasted garlic. It's easy to roast whole garlic heads. Just sprinkle generously with olive oil, wrap loosely in foil and bake them at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes until the individual cloves are soft and tender. Cool the garlic, then cut off the tips of the cloves and squeeze out the pulp. Mash the pulp into freshly steamed potatoes along with a little hot milk and butter. Add salt and pepper to taste and top with fresh parsley or chives. These rich tasting potatoes are silky-smooth and the kind of supreme comfort food everyone loves on cold winter nights.
The dried and fresh fruit delicacies available at holiday time can add beautiful colors and flavors to special meals. Here are two recipes to showcase winter fruits. The rice dish uses saffron and dried apricots. I've been planting saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) for several seasons now and harvested some of their bright orange stamens to dry for the first time this fall. I won't have enough of my home grown saffron for this recipe, but it is fun to add what I did grow into the dish and I'd like to encourage other cooking gardeners to grow these lovely little fall-blooming bulbs for both their ornamental and culinary attributes