San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The abundance of tropical squash

If there were one word to describe tropical squash, that word would be abundance. Known as ayote in Spanish, Curcubita maxima is the native pumpkin squash of the tropical Americas. Grown by the indigenous tribes for ages before the Europeans arrived here, these hardy plants are still one of the most important staple crops in the area. 

Ed Bernhardt

Ed Bernhardt

Ayotes also provide an abundance of nutrition at each meal. According to Rodale Press, each one-half cup of cooked squash contains up to 4,000 units of vitamin A, .04 milligrams of vitamin B1, .05 milligrams of B2, 3 milligrams of vitamin C, 18 milligrams of calcium, 15 milligrams of phosphorus and .3 milligrams of iron.  

These plants are also resistant to insect attacks and diseases, which makes them easy to grow in the home garden. Many gardeners including myself have had poor luck with growing zucchinis, yellow crookneck and other northern varieties of squash in the tropics. These varieties are genetically adapted to northern conditions, which seem to make them vulnerable to tropical insects and diseases. We also discovered that the young, succulent tropical squash tastes just as good as the northern variety. Here are some tips on growing your own ayotes at home.  

Start with good soil fertility when planting ayotes. We usually prepare a hole about 1 meter in diameter and 30 to 40 centimeters deep. In this hole, we apply one wheelbarrow load of rich, aged compost fortified with two shovels full of ashes. Next, we plant 3 ayote seeds in the center about 5 centimeters deep and 30 centimeters apart. Areas where brush and leaves have been burned are ideal spots for planting ayotes. Keep the young plants free of weeds, and when the ayote plants begin to cover the area, prune the leading tips of the vines. By the way, locals taught us to use these tendrils for a spinach-like vegetable dish known as “quelites de ayote.”  

Pruning your ayote plant helps keep it compact and stimulates flowering and production. When the plant begins to produce its brilliant, yellow flowers, keep a close eye on the production of the tender young squashes. Begin to harvest when they reach the size of about a cantaloupe. At this stage, they are as delicious as zucchinis. Leave others to develop to their full size for seed production and use them as mature squashes.  You’ll find that an ayote plant can produce for several months, providing an abundance of delicious meals for the family. Here are several recipes from our kitchen for preparing native tropical squash.

Squash Soup- Cook large chunks of squash in water for 10-15 minutes until they are soft. Now blend the cooked squash with some milk or pejibaye puree and the broth they were cooked in. Add a small amount of sea salt, cumin, cayenne and black pepper. Re-heat the blended soup and serve. 

Vegetable Squash Pie – Prepare a piecrust. Pre-bake for several minutes in the oven until the piecrust is brown. Meanwhile, cook 2 cups of diced mature squash until it is soft, then puree.  Sautee a selection of vegetables, like onions, carrots, broccoli and celery with oregano, cumin and thyme.  Add the squash puree to the vegetables and pour into the pie mold. Bake for 15 minutes at 300° F. Serve while the pie is still warm as a main dish.

Next time we’ll spotlight how you can have an abundant dry season garden. Until then, may you have a bountiful harvest from Mother Nature’s table, the garden.

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