For Buffalo Bird Woman, the Hidatsa Indian featured in Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden, it was dry slices of immature squash that were the main squash staple, not fully mature squash. I love growing squash. And Buffalo Bird Woman had a production system for dried squash that looked very efficient as well as fun. So I studied the text and pictures in the book for hours.
Buffalo Bird Women and other Hidatsa and Mandan Indian women harvested their squash when they were about fist-sized. (We don't know what varieties they were using. Their squash varied in colour and shape, and they may not have been pure varieties.) At this stage, the squash skin was still tender and the seeds immature enough to be palatable. That is, the squash were being harvested at the summer squash stage. It was slices of summer squash, including the seed cavities and immature seeds, that were dried.
The picked squash were cut into slices about 3/8 inch thick. The ends were set aside. The rest of the slices were skewered onto sharpened willow sticks through the soft pulp in the middle of the seed cavities, and the slices were then separated along the stick to allow airflow between them. Each stick with its squash was then placed in the sun. The squash took several days to dry completely. If rain threatened, the entire frame with all the sticks of squash was covered with hides.
After the squash was dried, a second, thinner willow stick with a piece of string attached was threaded through the holes of the squash on each stick. (This is while the slices were still on the first stick. The holes around the stick expand as the squash dries.) Then the squash was efficiently transferred from the stick to the needle-stick to the string. Each string of squash was tied into a circle and then hung indoors or hidden with corn and other dry staples in buried food caches.
When Buffalo Bird Women made a stew, she threw ground corn, beans, meat and fat and an entire string of dried squash into the pot and boiled until the corn and beans were done. At this point, the squash had softened and fallen of the string and broken up, and the string (still tied in a circle) was removed.
When I read all this, of course I had to try dried squash. But what varieties? I didn’t have whatever variety Buffalo Bird Women was using, if it even was a pure variety. Would different varieties taste different? Would I like the flavour of dried squash of any variety? And could dried squash be produced on Oregon?
The best option, I decided, would be if I could produce great dried squash from varieties I already grow for other reasons. The large, viney varieties of prime winter squash wouldn’t be suitable as they need the full energy of the plant and the full growing season to produce and sweeten their big winter squash. What would be optimal is if standard summer squash varieties could produce good dried squash using the bigger summer squash that are past their prime for use as summer squash. Summer squash plants are mostly bushes that are in the business of cranking out huge amounts of immature fruits. Summer squash also have tendency to ‘get away from you,” that is, to grow, seemingly overnight, from tiny fruits into squash that are too big to be really useful as high-quality summer squash. Of summer squash my favourite variety is ‘Costata Romanesca’. So I started there.
I started out making 3/8 inch slices, as Buffalo Bird Women did, but dried them in a dehydrator at 125 degree Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). Dried ‘Costata Romanseca’ quickly proved to be powerfully delicious. The flavour of dried squash was unique and distinctive, and so wonderful I would have been happy to grow the variety for dried squash alone. I was inspired to check out some other varieties.
The next squash I tried was ‘Dark Green Zucchini.’ It produced dried squash that tasted like, well nothing. It virtually had no flavour. Variety was everything. Here’s a summary of the drying quality of selected varieties:
Most of the green zucchini varieties produce bland, virtually tasteless squash.
‘Costata Romanesca’, ‘White Egyptian’, and ‘Magda F’ produce very delicious dried squash that taste similar to each other.
‘Golden Zucchini’, ‘Golden Bush Zucchini’, and Gold Rush F’ produce delicious dried squash of a completely different flavour class than ‘Costata Romanesca.’
I tried many winter squash too, just to check flavours. Some were foul. ‘Sweet Meat’, ‘Sunshine F’, 'Black Hubbard', and 'Chicago Hubbard' give a delicious and completely different third flavour.
My initial supposition, that it would be impractical to dry winter squash, turned out to be generally true. There are useful exceptions. 'Sweat Meat' sometimes produces a late flush of immature fruits that can be dried. And if you treat a few of your 'Sunshine F' bushes as summer squash and keep them harvested, they will act like summer squash and crank out flush after flush of fruit great for drying.
I dried one medium green-coloured zucchini I bought in a store that was spectacularly delcious dried. It made a dried-squash flavour that was yet again different from the three other flavours.
There are many summer squashes and zucchinis that have shapes or sizes that don't lend themselves to drying. 'Yellow Croockneck' and 'Sunray F', a yellow straightneck, are summer squash that develop a hard skin and unpalatable seeds by the time they are at the right stage for drying, for example. The scallop shape doesn't lend itself to making slices, and the scallop varieties generally develop tough skins and/or unpalatable seeds before they are at a good size for drying.
The best stage for drying most squash is when the squash is 1 to 4 pounds (450g - 2kg), depending on variety.
I would suggest you start drying squash first with 'Costata Romanesca' and with a big gold zucchini such as 'Golden Bush Zucchini' or 'Gold Rush F'. That will give you two different, delicious flavours. Second, I recommend you just try drying whatever summer squash you like that are the right shapes and sizes for it and see if you end up with something delicious.
This is an extract from Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, published by Chelsea Green Publishing by clicking HERE.