Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Andrea Chesman: Volunteers in the Garden

I’m not talking about getting the kids or the neighbors or friends to help with big chores, like digging new beds or erecting fences. I’m talking about volunteers, spontaneous growth of unplanned and unplanted vegetables.

Some people call them weeds.

You don’t have to be particularly inexperienced or particularly softhearted to think that volunteers are a good thing. I rarely have to plant dill or cilantro because it just pops up near wherever it grew the previous year. Tomatoes often volunteer, and because I plant heirlooms, they breed true. Last year we had a generous harvest from a single volunteer tomatillo plant (which was something of a mystery because I’ve never grown tomatillos).

So last year when a volunteer winter squash popped up in a corner of the garden, we—my son and I—allowed it to spread across the lawn. We couldn’t guess the variety until it had fruited, so against my better judgment, we let it grow. I knew it was likely to be some ancient winter squash throwback, some variety whose genes were mixed into a hybrid variety for a single characteristic like color, or days to harvest, but not necessarily fine flavor. It certainly grew vigorously and fruited copiously.

The harvested squash turned out to have no verifiable identity. It looked like a green pumpkin, with paler flesh. “Can I compost it now?” I asked throughout October and early November. “No, no, don’t throw it out! Cook it.” Who throws away good food? Not me.

Winter squash harvest

I cooked the odd squash and found the flavor insipid but not bad. The flesh was watery, perhaps by nature but perhaps because it had been such a wet growing season. Whatever it was, I put by several quarts in the freezer because I’m not the type to waste food. I figured even weird, watery, no-name squash would be fine in this foolproof recipe for pumpkin cake.

Draining the squash to use in the Easy Pumpkin Cake recipe

Now it is time to use up the old harvest to make way for the new. And I still have several containers of this squash. This quick and easy recipe is perfect for using up pureed winter squash or pumpkin—frozen or canned, insipid or inspiring.

I topped it with chopped pecans and sent it off to the refreshment table for the May Ripton Community Coffeehouse concert with Dollar General. It was eaten, and I heard no complaints—sugar fixes what nature doesn’t.

Easy Pumpkin Cake
Serves 12 to 15

At my children’s elementary school, this recipe was passed from mother to mother and from class to class. It was featured at the school’s annual Thanksgiving feast, a meal prepared by parents and schoolchildren and shared with all the school families and the town elders each year. It has become the cake I am most likely to whip up when a bake sale or potluck dinner catches me unprepared. And it is absolutely foolproof.
Cake Ingredients
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 large eggs
1 3/4 cups cooked and mashed pumpkin or winter squash puree
Cream Cheese Frosting
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 to 2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.
  2. In a medium-size mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. Mix well.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar and oil and beat until light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the pumpkin. Add the flour mixture, and beat just until thoroughly blended. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.
  4. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly touched.
  5. Cool completely on a rack.
  6. To make the frosting, beat together the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla. Add 2 cups confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth. If the frosting is too thin, add the additional 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, and beat until smooth.
  7. Spread evenly over the cooled cake.

Adapted from Serving Up the Harvest by Andrea Chesman © 2009
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