The Kitchen Garden: In praise of Cucurbitaceae (Cukes & Squash)

By / Photography By Randazzo Blau | March 21, 2018
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Cucumber and squash seeds to plant this spring.


Asking a gardener to choose her favorite vegetable is a little like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. They’re all at times wondrous and maddening, and each finds a way in and out of good favor, but truth be told, the choice is easy for this gardener-mom: my personal fave is the little cuke.

In the garden:

As a diehard pickle person, most of what I plant are pickling cucumbers. A good pickler makes a great slicer, too, while the slicer wears out its welcome after the 20th harvest. With limited success, I also plant cucumber-like serpent melons. I like their curlicue shape and crisp, bright flavor.

In the kitchen:

My tiniest cucumbers are pickled like gherkins, mediums are tossed by the bucketful into a garlicky brine and left to ferment, large guys are destined to become sweet Berlin pickles or the bass note in a tequila cocktail, or braised in butter ala Julia Child. The few serpents that emerge get sliced thinly on a mandoline and quick-pickled in rice wine vinegar.

Favorite Varieties:

Parisian PicklingPrickly and crunchy. Best picked small. The perfect gherkin.
Northern PicklingThe classic pickle’s pickle.
SikkimAstound your loved ones with this red mottled monster from the Himalayas.
Striped ArmenianA serpentine, fuzzy, cucumber-like melon.
Lemon CucumberIf you are short on space, this one’s it. Patio-perfect.

Cucumbers and squash seeds to plant this spring.

Summer Squash:

Summer squash is the epitome of the love-hate relationship in the garden. The giddy delight of the first visiting bumblebees, a gathering basket of fresh yellow squash flowers and the emergence of pinky-sized fruits are soon replaced with a family-wide groan, a countertop of watery zeppelins and a mad scramble for recipes and gracious neighbors in need of 60 or so gargantuan orbs.

In the garden:

Succession plant a few different types and don’t be afraid to yank one out when you get sick of it. Go for a variety of shapes and colors: a patty pan, a crookneck and a Costata type. Something warty and weird is always a plus.

In the kitchen:

Slice and fry in ghee with a sprinkle of salt. Grill and preserve in olive oil and herbs. Stuff pristine flowers with Duxelles and sautée to a golden brown. Pickle with Indian spices. Beyond my tried and true preparations, I always get stumped. Or maybe I just give up. Summer squash, you win.

Favorite Varieties:

Costata RomanescoThe best there is. Prepare to meet the dreaded squash borer.
Patisson Strie MelangeWarty and striped. Especially pretty when big.
Yellow CrookneckA firm, sweet heirloom. The “neck” holds up well in the pickle jar.
MagdaNutty and mild. Pick when small.

Winter Squash:

Caring for a winter squash from seed to full-grown specimen is one of the most soul-satisfying endeavors of the garden. Each plant produces only a handful of fruit, and each one has its own personality and verve. Winter squash addicts like me must find their way to Amy Goldman’s mesmerizing tome, The Compleat Squash.

In the garden:

Tuck seeds toward the edge of the garden and let the vines spill off over the fence or down the hill. Toss extra seeds into the compost heap and see what happens. Grow more than one variety including a kabocha-type for making the most decadent “pumpkin” pie. Never waste space on a pumpkin you can’t eat. The edible ones are just as pretty.

In the kitchen:

Roast until the skin is caramelized. Drizzle pistachio oil on a piping-hot soup. Whip up a brown-butter pumpkin pie with kabocha. Cube, roast and fold into a dandelion salad. Steam and purée until smooth for lucky babies and adults. Grill with olive oil and serve as a whole wedge.

Favorite Varieties:

KabochaSweet flesh, dry and decadent.
Marina di ChioggiaNutty, dense and ugly in the most beautiful way.
Winter LuxuryThe best pie pumpkin. Covered in a pretty caul-like netting.
Musquee De ProvenceHeavily lobed and magically huge. Cinderella-ready.

Other Varieties:

CucuzzaPronounce it “Gagootz!” Bring tears to your Sicilian friends’ eyes.
Luffa GourdGrow your own scrubbies. Start early under lights.
Long OpoA mild-flavored bottle gourd. Adorably furry leaves.
Bitter GourdI will attempt these for the third time this summer. So far, no luck.

Our favorite seed-sources:

Hudson Valley Seed | @hudsonvalleyseed
Baker Creek Heirlooms | @bakercreekseeds
Johnny’s Seeds | @johnnys_seeds
Kitazawa Seed Company | @kitazawa_seed
Seeds from Italy | @seedsfromitaly

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