Butternut squash

The arrival of fall brings with it so many pleasures–beautiful foliage, football, the start of the holiday season and many more.  One of the things I most look forward to with the arrival of fall is the winter squash butternut squashseason, and my favorite winter squash is the butternut squash.  These somewhat pear-shaped squash have a slightly sweet, nutty flavor similar to a pumpkin.  As a matter of fact, when I asked a local Amish farmer which of the pumpkins he grew would be the best for a pie, he took me to the butternut squash and said this is what we use for pies.  Not only do butternut squash taste delicious, but they are a good source of vitamin A including beta carotene, fiber, potassium and magnesium.  Their ability to be used in sweet and savory recipes makes them a highly versatile vegetable.

These squash are grown in the summer, but harvested in the fall, so right now is the height of butternut squash season.  They are readily available in farmers’ markets and grocery stores and because they are in season they are reasonably priced and full of flavor.  Butternut, and most winter squash, store well if you have the right place.  Stored in a cool, dark place, butternut squash can last for 2-3 months, maybe longer depending on your conditions.  This potential for long term storage allows you to buy several of them when they are at their cheapest.

Not everyone is familiar with butternut squash.  I know I wasn’t until a few years ago.  Most recipes begin with roasting the squash, but it can also be sautéed and cooked in a soup.  Here are some recipes to try.  And while I enjoy butternut squash in dishes, sometimes my favorite way to eat it is to just roast peeled, cubed butternut squash tossed in olive oil (or any vegetable oil) with a little salt and pepper.

mashed bns

Winter Squash Puree

from Good and Cheap:  Eat Well on $4/Day

  • 1 Tbs. butter, plus more for the pan
  • 1 butternut squash (or any other winter squash except spaghetti squash)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste

            Additions

  • yogurt or sour cream
  • brown sugar and cinnamon
  • finely chopped chiles
  • curry powder
  • raisins
  • sage
  • parmesan, cheddar  or goat cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Butter a baking sheet.  Slice the squash in half using a big, sharp knife.  Scoop out the seeds and fibers.  Set the halves facedown on the sheet.  Bake in the oven until a knife poked into the squash goes through easily, 30-40 minutes.  Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat.  Add the garlic and sauté about 2 minutes.  Remove from the heat.  Scoop the squash from the skin and place it in a large bowl with the garlic, the butter from the pan and any other additions.  Mash and stir until smooth.  Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

This recipe makes a great side dish.  I would also use it with goat cheese as a spread on toast in the morning!

roasted bns

Baked Garlicky Butternut Squash

from Main Course Vegetarian Pleasures

  • 1 large (3 1/2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1/3 cup olive or other vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Tbs. minced parsley
  • salt to taste
  • liberal seasoning of black pepper
  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In a large bowl, toss squash, oil, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.  Spoon vegetable into a shallow baking dish, making sure the squash is in a single layer.  Sprinkle with the parmesan cheese.  Bake for 1 hour, or until the squash is tender, but not mushy.

Again I have made the above recipe using just oil, salt and pepper!

 

bns bb pinto

Butternut Squash & Black Bean Tacos

recipe courtesy of Chester County Food Bank

  • 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into small cubes
  • 2 cans of black beans, drained, rinsed and warmed.
  • 3 Tbs. olive  or vegetable oil
  • 1 Tbs. of chili powder or other spices (maybe cumin)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 8-10 corn or flour tortillas
  • 1 cup sour cream or cheese (optional)
  • salsa or hot pepper, diced (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Pile squash on a baking dish, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with chili powder or other spices and 1 tsp. salt.  Toss to coat the squash evenly.  Spread the squash in a single layer on the pan and roast for about 25 minutes, stirring once about halfway through.  The squash should be very soft and browned around the edges.  Remove from oven and set aside.  To make the tacos:  fill the tortillas with the squash and beans.  Top with the optional ingredients, if desired, and serve right away.  Any leftover taco filling can be stored in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.

Instead of tacos, you could put the filling into a burrito, make a quesadilla or mix it with crunched up tortilla chips to make a taco salad.  You could use pinto beans instead of black beans and cooking dry beans is a cheaper option.

I have so many more recipes for butternut squash.  I could almost eat a butternut squash every week for most of the season and not repeat a recipe.  I hope these the recipes above inspire you to cook a butternut squash, especially if you have never tried one!  I’m off to cook one now to use in Butternut Squash Lasagna.

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Oddities, End Dates and Some Dirt

The past couple of weeks both food pantries in which I volunteer have gotten large shipments of donated items from the county food bank.  These items are not TEFAP (Federal) or State supplied food.  They are strictly items donated by the general public to the county food bank through canned food drives or individual drop offs.  These sizeable shipments have been filled with many useful and needed items, like cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter.  They have also contained items for clients with health problems or special diets, like low sodium soups, vegetarian items or sugar and fat free items which are good for diabetics.  I have, however, made a couple disappointing observations that I wanted to share.

expiration dateFirst, most food items are now stamped with a sell by or use by date.  The majority of items are donated well before their expiration date, but at both pantries we have encountered items that were expired.  In several instances the items were several years out of date.  Additionally, we encountered severely dented or rusted cans.  Canned goods that were only a few months out of date or are only slightly dented are put on a table or shelf with an explanation as to why they are there, allowing clients to decide whether to take them or not.  Items that are well beyond their expiration date, heavily dented or rusted have to be thrown away.  My suggestion to people who contribute to a food bank or pantry is to look at the sell by date and the condition of the can.  This is especially important if the item is coming out of your pantry.  I know I have been surprised at how old some items are in my own pantry.  If the food item is either out of date or in questionable condition, please do not donate it.

As I mentioned, most of the items donated are useful and needed, but I have seen some very odd items as well.  Some of my favorites include a can of hearts of palm, Chinese Mabo Tofu Sauce and tamarind sauce.  All of these items may be quite tasty, but they are not something the average cook, particularly in rural Pennsylvania, is going to know what to do with.  Most foodMOST-NEEDED-FOOD-DONATIONS banks and pantries have a list of items they regularly distribute or for which they have a particular need.  I encourage anyone uncertain about what to donate to contact the local food bank or check their website to get that list of most needed items.  Some items that can always be used are canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, and unsweetened cereals.  Please do not think of the local food bank as a place to take unwanted items from your pantry.

 And now about the dirt.  No, the dirt has nothing to do with the donated food from the county food bank.  Today I got to play in the dirt a bit.  One of the food pantries where I volunteer has raised beds in which they grow vegetables to be distributed in the food pantry.  The broccoli broccoli seedlingsseedlings we planed today were supplied by the county food bank.  In addition to the broccoli we planted today, volunteers had already planted onions, radishes, cabbage, lettuce and carrots.  To augment the vegetables grown in the raised beds, some staff members of the food pantry will plant other vegetables at their homes to be harvested for the pantry.  I love this idea of the pantry growing their own produce and this pantry is fortunate to have the space to do so.  I am excited to think of all the fresh produce that will be available to food pantry clients later this summer.

 

Produce in the Parking Lot

On March 26th I had the opportunity to attend a program sponsored by the Delaware Historical Society entitled Forks in the Road.  This panel discussion, addressing contemporary food issues in Delaware, was the first in a series the Historical Society plans to present over the next year and a half.  The talk was moderated by Ed Kee, Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture and the panel included two farmers, Larry Jester and Georgie Cartanza; former Chief Planner for the DE Department of Agriculture, Michael McGrath; Director of Marketing for the Kenny Family Shoprite, Dan Tanzer and Produce Director for Urban Acres Produce, LLC, Michael Minor.

While all the panelists were engaging and I had interest in all the topics that were discussed, I was particularly interested in Mr. Minor’s discussion of Urban Acres Produce.  Urban Acres operates 4 produce stands, Urban Acresselling locally grown produce when possible, in Wilmington’s East Side, a community lacking easy access to healthy food.  The term used to describe communities that lack convenient access to healthy food is a food desert.  A governmental working group comprised of members from various agencies including the USDA defines a food desert as a “low income census tract where either a substantial number or share of residents have low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.”  Food deserts exist in every state, in urban locations and rural settings surrounded by growing produce.

Several aspects of this venture appeal to me.  First, Urban Acres’ produce stands are an innovative way to introduce healthy food to residents in an area that has limited access to fresh produce.  These stands operate from May through November in 4 different locations.  (For days, hours and locations click on link below)  The stands are situated in convenient places that significant numbers of residents frequent, like apartment building parking lots or churches, in hopes of reaching more residents. In addition to just selling produce, Mr. Minor discussed the necessity of educating people about the importance of eating healthy food whenever possible.

https://centralbaptistcdc.com/

Urban Acres welcomes volunteers but also utilizes paid staff members from the community to run its produce stands.  Urban Acres was started not only as a means of getting produce into a food desert, but as a way to provide a community resident with a job.  By engaging the community, either through employment or as volunteers,  Urban Acres is empowering the citizens of the East Side to create a better situation for themselves.  With Urban Acres as an employer, the community will also have a vested interest in the success of these produce stands in order to keep those jobs in the community.

Finally, these produce stands provide access to local produce during the growing season.  The nutrient content of produce begins to decrease once it is harvested.  Local produce is likely to be higher in nutrients because there is a shorted time between harvest and consumption.  It is better for the environment since it has less of a distance to travel to get to market, using less fuel and creating less pollution.  Finally, by purchasing local produce Urban Acres is also assisting smaller, often family farming operations and supporting the local economy.   But perhaps the best reason to provide local produce is that it just tastes better because it is picked at the peak of ripeness!

local produce

Some may wonder why I am spending a blog post discussing urban produce stands.  Hunger, food insecurity and food deserts are all pieces to the same puzzle.  These problems speak to larger issues in our society like wage inequality, unemployment and poverty.  They are also intertwined with what the government subsidizes, large agribusiness growing corn and soybeans, and what it does not, smaller farming operations growing a diversity of produce.  These subsidies help make heavily processed food cheaper and produce more expensive.  Finally, making produce available in communities which have had limited access to it connects with my discussion of cooking from scratch and stretching food dollars.  You can’t cook what you can’t purchase due to lack of access.

I am encouraged when I see a community coming together to create a solution for its specific problem.  As I told friends and family that I was planning to assist the hungry and food insecure, several people told me this was an issue of concern for them, but they were overwhelmed by the size of the problem and felt immobilized with helplessness.  I was too initially, but decided my mission was to work within my community to bring awareness to the existence of food insecurity and other food scarcity issues and to help find solutions to lessen the numbers of people experiencing these problems.  I am using this blog to chronicle that effort, but also to educate others on the larger, national issues and hopefully build a community to grow ideas and create solutions to these problems.  Some of the best catalysts for change have come out of local, grassroot operations.

Fruits and vegetables!

butternut squashThe food pantry I was spinachvolunteering in yesterday had some of the butternut squash I wrote about a couple of weeks back.  They were also offering frozen blueberries, fresh apples and fresh spinach, which had been harvested from greenhouses just last week.  I am pleased to see minimally processed produce, even if it is frozen like the blueberries and squash, offered.  I didn’t pack too many orders yesterday, so I don’t know how readily the squash and spinach were being taken, but the apples and blueberries are always popular, particularly in households with children.