Jenny Thull stood in a field festooned with tightly organized, endlessly varied fruits and held up a bright orange, multilayered … what?
“This is a Turban squash,” she said, beaming as she addressed a crowd of volunteers on a misty morning last week. “I don’t love the flavor, but I like how they look. I sculpted one into Toad from the Mario Brothers one time.”
Thull, who noted that she also had carved a Chicago Warted Hubbard squash into a hippopotamus, was decidedly in her element. The lady loves her squash. And pumpkins. And gourds. At the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center (HRC) in Victoria, she has been dubbed the Queen of the Cucurbits (a term covering all species of these fruits).
Every June, Jenny and her husband, John, sow seeds from across the globe over 3-plus acres at the HRC, and every fall 100 or so volunteers from Wells Fargo help pick them. Aside from some that the Thulls take home to cook over the next several months, and a few given to the volunteers, these are sold at the HRC’s AppleHouse.
And a few of them are part of a display at the nearby Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, which is aligned with the HRC. The 12-foot-high “Around the World” exhibit shares points of origin from Japan, Iran, Italy, Australia and more, especially North and Central America, where squash originated.
Indeed, the 263 varieties planted in six plots this year came from seeds from 47 countries. The harvest included 213 varieties, a haul weighing more than 10 tons.
And this is only a small part of the job for the Thulls, who spend most of their week working as grape breeders and growers. The squash et al. are basically a side project, launched a decade ago with 15 varieties.
The figurative germination started much earlier.
“I love squash,” said Jenny Thull. “Growing up, we ate a lot of squash, and I kept thinking there’s got to be something better than acorn, which can be dry and stringy, or butternut, which can be watery.”
So she set out to learn more, and grow more, and cook and carve more. One year the Thulls planted 291 types — “I really want to get to 300 sometime,” she said — and the harvest eventually became a “player” for the HRC.
“This program brings in some revenue, but it’s not about money,” said Arboretum director Pete Moe. “To me it’s the education value, to see the diversity and history. Squash first appeared in literature in Europe in 1503, only 11 years after Columbus came over. The Nandan Indians were growing squash when Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri River.
“The Arboretum is fortunate to have two such knowledgeable and educated people. In addition to being a very skilled and knowledgeable grape grower, Jenny is equally skilled with squash. Her encyclopedic knowledge is unbelievable. Both of them are very passionate about pumpkins,” said Moe.
Fonts of knowledge
The Thulls’ ardor for all things cucurbit is palpable as they display and describe some favorites to the throng of pickers taking a break and munching on apple doughnuts.
Jenny: “This one’s called One Too Many because it’s got a bloodshot ‘eyeball.’ ”
John: “From the funky side, this turban-like one is called Fungo.”
Jenny: “That one might go back to the Mayans.”
John: “For this one they crossed a regular pumpkin with a red, warty thing. It’s great for display, but I dare you to try to carve that thing.”
Jenny: “I broke off a knife in one and put some red food coloring near it so it looked like blood.”
John: “The things we do to our kids.”
The Thulls do have one child, and the 4-year-old’s name cropped up — literally — as John held aloft an oblong squash with the letters “M-A-S-O-N” on it.
“Last spring we sat with Mason and inscribed his name on one of the seeds. In August, I went out and scored one of them, and then we sent Mason out to the field to find ‘his’ squash. And he thinks it grew that way,” said Jenny.
John grinned. “It just feeds into my crazy,” he said.
Throughout this very informal show-and-tell, the redshirted volunteers have been gawking at scores of fruit, in sets of three, on the ground. In all manner of sizes, they are black and blue and white, with 50 shades (each) of green, yellow and orange in between. Many are variegated, the most striking having white stripes interlocked with green. (“Though white ones are becoming super-popular,” Jenny said.)
Some look like snakes, others like octopi or brains, and a few are called “Gremlins” because they basically can take whatever shape they desire.
And then it’s back to the fields, for work that for many of these folks does not seem at all like a chore.
“It’s so cool to see this now,” said Lisa Foss, a Wells Fargo volunteer, “because when we came out to weed in July, they were nothing. My group of friends volunteers a lot, but this is my favorite. I’m going to come back and get some to use in my grandma’s pumpkin-pie recipe.”
Cooking and carving
For Jenny Thull, recipes abound, some of which are shared on this page. She says she could eat squash every day, but she restricts herself to three nights a week for two reasons, one predictable and the other surprising.
“Poor John, I don’t want him to get sick of them,” she said, “and I don’t want to turn my son orange.
“Actually, if you feed someone too much squash, their skin will start changing colors,” she said. “It’s the Vitamin A. I think it happens with carrots, too.” [It’s true.]
Adding new types of squash each year creates new opportunities for sweet and savory dishes, so it’s probably good that the Thulls consider a lot of their crop inedible.
“Pumpkins are not for eating,” said Jenny, pointing out that canned “pumpkin” sold in stores for pie mix is actually Hubbard squash. “They’re watery, stringy and the seeds make them bitter.”
Decor is another matter entirely. “At Halloween, our house becomes a shenanigans,” said John, with a chuckle. Last year, their Excelsior property was laden with pumpkins, including 20 white ones that Jenny carved with Prince’s symbol and placed purple lights inside.
Those are the smaller ones, of course. The Thulls grow several ginormous pumpkins, as well, planting seedlings well before the June sowing of the rest of their crop. They also admonished the volunteers to let them handle the humongo ones later.
“John made me push a 282-pound pumpkin onto the truck one year,” Jenny said.
She’s ready for more, though, and had seen a couple in the patch that she hoped to take to a Waconia weigh station in hopes of crossing the 300-pound barrier. (That’s small potatoes compared with the state-record 1,918.5-pounder grown last year in Otsego, Minn., but those folks used 100 gallons of water a day and heat pads in the field.)
With harvest almost complete and surprisingly successful given the cool, rainy late summer, Jenny is turning her attention to the future. She’s already scouring seed-company websites, especially for new and heirloom varieties, and filling her basement with food for the winter — and perhaps beyond.
“I let a lot of them go till spring,” she said. “One time, I kept one for three years. In fact, we still have three leftover from last year. I guess I probably should cook those soon.”
Bill Ward is a Minneapolis freelance writer on food and wine.
Sweet Dumpling Squash Tart With Fried Sage
Note: From Jenny Thull.
• 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed (from a 17.3-oz. pkg.)
• 1 egg beaten with 1 tsp. water
• 12 (1/8-in.-thick) rounds of Sweet Dumpling squash or Delicata squash (preferably Honeyboat Delicata)
• 3 tbsp. olive oil, divided
• Kosher salt
• 1/4 c. honey
• 1 thinly sliced Fresno, jalapeño, or red Thai chile
• 12 fresh sage leaves
• 1/4 c. shaved Parmesan
• Black pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Gently roll out 1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed, on a lightly floured surface to a 10-inch square (roll out just enough to even it out). Transfer to prepared sheet.
Brush pastry with egg wash mixture. Arrange the squash rounds over the pastry, overlapping as needed and leaving a 1/2-inch border. Place another sheet of parchment paper over the squash. Set another large rimmed baking sheet over the tart. (This will weigh down the pastry dough and allow the squash to steam.) Bake until the bottom of the pastry begins to brown, about 10 minutes.
Remove top baking sheet and discard top sheet of parchment paper.
Brush squash slices with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with kosher salt. Return tart, uncovered, to oven and bake until pastry is deep golden brown and cooked through, 25 to 30 minutes longer.
Meanwhile, combine honey, chile slices and 2 tablespoons water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat (add another thinly sliced chile if more spice is desired). Boil until thickened slightly and syrupy, about 6 minutes.
Line a plate with paper towels. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet until just beginning to smoke. Add 12 fresh sage leaves; fry until crisp, about 30 seconds. Transfer to paper towels to drain.
Slice tart. Arrange 1/4 cup shaved Parmesan on top; drizzle with chile-infused honey. Garnish with fried sage leaves and a few grinds of black pepper.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 290 Fat 19 g Sodium 135 mg Carbohydrates 27 g Saturated fat 4 g Total sugars 11 g Protein 5 g Cholesterol 20 mg Dietary fiber 3 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 carb, 3 ½ fat.
Jenny’s Squash Soup With Gruyère Croutons
Makes 10 to 12 cups.
Note: Any squash can be used, but those mentioned are the favorites of Jenny Thull, who says they add complexity and richness to the soup.
• 1/4 c. (1/2 stick) butter
• 1 large onion, finely chopped
• 4 large garlic cloves, chopped
• 3 (14.5-oz.) cans low-salt chicken broth
• 4 c. (1-in.) pieces peeled Sunshine Kabocha squash, about 1 1/2 lb. (see Note)
• 4 c. (1-in.) pieces peeled Hubbard squash or blue squash such as Queensland Blue, about 1 1/2 lb. (see Note)
• 1 1/4 tsp. minced fresh thyme
• 1 1/4 tsp. minced fresh sage
• 1/4 c. heavy whipping cream
• 2 tsp. sugar
• Salt and pepper, to taste
• 2 tbsp. (1/4 stick) butter
• 24 (1/4-in.-thick) slices of baguette
• 1 c. grated Gruyère cheese
• 1 tsp. minced fresh thyme
• 1 tsp. minced fresh sage
• Salt and pepper
To make soup: Melt butter in large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add broth, all squash and herbs; bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until squash is very tender, about 20 minutes.
Working in batches, purée soup in blender. Return soup to same pot. Stir in cream and sugar; bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill. Rewarm over medium heat before serving.)
To make the croutons: Preheat broiler. Butter 1 side of each bread slice. Arrange bread, buttered side up, on baking sheet. Broil until golden, about 1 minute. Turn over. Sprinkle cheese, then thyme and sage over the bread. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Broil until cheese melts, about 1 minute.
To serve: Ladle soup into bowls. Top each with 1 or 2 croutons, with any remaining ones on the side.
Nutrition information per 12 servings, with no croutons:
Calories 120 Fat 7 g Sodium 70 mg Carbohydrates 13 g Saturated fat 4 g Total sugars 6 g Protein 4 g Cholesterol 15 mg Dietary fiber 4 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 1 fat.