Discover the semiprecious gem squash

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A couple of years ago a Christmas package from my sister in South Africa included a small packet of gem squash seeds. My wife was delighted, because she loves the cornlike flavor of the apple-size winter squash.

I was equally pleased, but I had my doubts. Would this immigrant from a much milder climate produce well in New England's short growing season?

Indeed, it grew as vigorously and produced as abundantly as it ever did in its native land. Moreover, just as I was delighting in the vine's productivity, I learned that there is a source of gem squash seed here in the United States. Le Jardin du Gourmet of West Danville, Vt., seeks out useful seed varieties from around the world that would also do well in the US.

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As a matter of fact, it grew as vigorously and produced as abundantly as it ever did in its native land. Moreover, just as I was delighting in the vine's productivity, I learned that there is a source of gem squash seed here in the United States. Le Jardin du Gourmet of West Danville, Vt., seeks out useful seed varieties from around the world that would also do well in the States.

I grew up despising squash of all kinds. Then I married a winter-squash lover , who quickly won me over. One of the reasons for my quick conversion was the ready availability of the gem. We ate it baked or boiled, generally cut in half and served in the rind (on the half shell, you might say), with a patty of butter in the center and seasoned to taste.

Since arriving in the US 15 years ago we have periodically reminisced about the gem and wondered why it wasn't available here, since the ancestors of all squash varieties originated in the Western Hemisphere. We assumed that the climate this far north was unsuitable.

As we quickly discovered, the climate is most suitable. Moreover, the rambling vines produced so abundantly here that we could eat many immature squashes as summer squash and still have all the mature squashes we would ever need.

Raymond Sanhoy, a former French restaurateur in New York City, started Le Jardin du Gourmet in 1978 to provide home gardeners with the sort of taste treats he gave patrons at his restaurant. As a Frenchman, he knows the vegetables of his native land best of all, and they predominate in his catalog. But seeds from Holland, West Germany, Africa, Portugal, the Soviet Union, Romania, and, of course, the United States are all featured.

The gem is small enough that the vine can easily support the fruit if grown up a fence. I sowed the seeds about 18 inches apart among the sugar snap pea vines, just as the latter were beginning to bear.

Once the pea harvest was over the squash vines took over, covering the 6 -foot-tall fence completely. The row had been fertilized generously with compost before the peas went in. Presumably the nitrogen fixed by the peas also helped the squash.

Once the pea harvest was over the squash vines took over, covering the 6 -foot- tall fence completely. The row had been fertilized generously with compost before the peas went in, so presumably the nitrogen fixed by the peas also helped the squash.

In my area the squash-vine borer is quite prevalent, but I noticed that only three vines in the 22-foot-long row fell to this pest. This suggests that the vine is not too attractive to the borer, possibly because the pencil-thin stalks offer too little to sustain the tunneling grub.

When the squashes are somewhat larger than a golf ball, they can be picked, boiled whole, and eaten, skin, seeds, and all, like summer squash. For peak ''winter squash'' flavor, pick the squashes when they are about the size of an apple and the rind is hard but still green. At this stage the somewhat fibrous flesh has a hint of fresh-picked corn to its taste.

Later on the squashes turn a bright orange and can be stored all winter long, outlasting even the butternut squash, which is considered a good keeper. But at this stage much of the unique flavor has disappeared from the gem and it needs more seasoning to perk it up.

At this stage, too, the bright orange balls look more like miniature pumpkins and can be used in decorative table arrangements much as ornamental gourds are used.

My wife has found that the best way to prepare gem squash is to puncture the skin here and there (to prevent it from bursting), then boil it whole for about 15 minutes. After removing it from the water, cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, season, and serve. On one occasion she filled the hollow with freshly steamed green peas for an eye-appealing as well as flavorsome dish.

To bake the squash, parboil, cut in half, and then place the two halves in an oven at around 350 degrees F. for 20 to 30 minutes.

If you are interested in getting some gem squash seeds, write to: Le Jardin du Gourmet, West Danville, Vt. 05873.

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