Eau de cucurbit

In their natural state, some pumpkins and squash have an incredible scent nearly the opposite of pumpkin spice.

Their flowers and flesh exude a floral fragrance, kind of like gardenia, lilac or jasmine.

Fragrant C. maxima (Eastern Rise kabocha) blossoms above an immature C. pepo (Long Pie pumpkin) fruit.

It doesn’t matter if you are inhaling a blossom in the summer, or steaming chunks in the winter. You might get intoxicated. You might even start humming Lilac Wine while making dinner. None of that has ever happened to me, of course.

I’m not alone, others have noticed the sweet and heady smell of some pumpkins and squash. Alas, I have not yet discovered a scholarly review of the fragrance of winter squashes or their relatives in the global Cucurbitacea family.

Pumpkins and squash are in the genus Cucurbita which is dominated by three main species, C. maxima, C. moschata, and C. pepo. All of these plants originated in the Americas and were spread around the world after first contact by white Europeans. More than half of the world’s cucurbit production is now in India and China.

I’ve grown all three species in Anchorage, Alaska, and so far, I’ve only noticed a strong floral fragrance from Cucurbita maxima. More specifically, from the Chinese kabocha cultivar, Eastern Rise, which I’ve been growing for two years.

Eastern Rise kabochas store well in a cool garage.

I’ve sniffed but haven’t noticed a strong floral scent emanating from any of my Cucurbita pepo plants. This species includes summer squashes, gourds, and many other varieties.

I’m not surprised that my C. maxima flowers smell so good. According to Deborah Madison, the maxima group, including Buttercups, Hubbards, Kabocha, and Red Kuri, have some of the sweetest, most delicious flavor.

Per my taste buds, the seedy flesh from the bulb-shaped ends of Tromboncino squash, a C. moschata cultivar, has a delicate melon scent. The flesh isn’t quite as sweet as a melon, but it is easy to cut up raw and eat like fruit. Butternut squash is a moschata cultivar, too, but I’ve never sniffed it or eaten it raw!

Finally, I’ve grown an Asian plant in the Cucurbitacea family with flowers that smell even more intoxicating than my kabocha.

I’m referring to bitter melon (Momordica charatia) which has rather small and delicate flowers. Only a couple blossoms will make a greenhouse smell divine. Just don’t expect the flesh to smell or taste any bit similar.

Readers, have you noticed the floral smell of certain cucurbits? Please help me feel less alone by sharing your observations in the comments.

The Winter Garden

A friend recently wrote a book focusing in part on Alaskans’ longing for specific and unique food items–from box cake mix to whale blubber.

Winter is an ideal time of year for Alaskans to plow through their favorites. In fact, winter is my favorite time to eat food from the garden.

As a dilettante food preserver, the canned pickles in the pantry, the packages of cubed pumpkin in the freezer, and the jars of various ferments in the refrigerator seem more precious to me than fillets of wild salmon.

In recent weeks, I’ve hacked apart three large pumpkins and winter squash, mostly to preserve in the freezer but also to make pie, pumpkin butter, maple-pumpkin-cornbread, stews, pepitas, and a really awful pudding (don’t EVER replace blackstrap molasses with pomegranate molasses). Several more pumpkins and squash are waiting in the living room for their turn to be carved.

Fragrant buttercup squash with saved seeds.

Cutting up pumpkins used to be intimidating, but I’ve learned how to knife through them relatively quickly, stopping the knife tip in the center cavity, and carving down from one end to the other. I scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp with a sharp grapefruit spoon. If I’m cutting up raw cubes of pumpkin for vacuum packing, I’ll start by peel the tough skins off with a sturdy Y-shaped peeler.

I’ve been sharing the last few jars of dill pickles and pickled runner beans with friends and co-workers. The last few too-salty fermented pickles are mellowing out in a water container. I’ll fish those out to dice into tuna salad.

One of the best gifts from the garden at this time of year is the “fast food” provided by kimchi and other fermented vegetables. The jars of lemon-dill kraut, curtido, celery, and hot peppers in the fridge could last until March or April. Everything in those jars is delicious, and if the fridge smells a little spunky, we don’t notice anymore.

Seaweed/sesame kimchi, fermented celery with sage and thyme, and garlic dill slices.

A new treasure from last year’s garden is the small cache of runner beans bagged up in the freezer. For a ski trip this past weekend, some of the purple speckled beans were soaked, cooked and tossed with pesto and pasta. They looked beautiful (staying purple) but I discovered a much more flavorful use for the beans is cooking them and tossing with rosemary, dried marjoram, capers, tarragon vinegar and lots of garlic.

Here are a few recipes that have worked well for us so far this season.

Pumpkin Maple Cornbread (you can cut the sugar and try making your own pepitas if you have really large pumpkin/squash seeds that are too tough to roast).

Warm White Bean Salad with runner beans instead of cannellini.

Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Dilly Beans with runner beans. I prefer this recipe which is in her book. The recipe in the pickle section of her website omits lemon peel.

If you have some favorite recipes for preserved food that you are enjoying this winter, please send along or share them in the comments!