When Americans get excited about squash, it isn't usually for the stems. We eat the fruits — thin-skinned zucchini or hardened winter squashes — and sometimes we eat the squash blossoms. But the rest of the plant is edible, too, including the broad fuzzy leaves, prickly stems and curlicue climbing tendrils. Indeed, many cultures around the world prize these itchy, scratchy plant parts.
Greens from any summer or winter squash are fair game, but the most delectable portions are found at the tip of each vine branch. This is where plant cells are actively dividing and differentiating into new buds, leaves, tendrils and shoots. It's the most tender region to eat, and easiest to prepare.
I learned the ways of squash greens from a grower named Chia Yang, who does a brisk business in bunched squash greens, among other, more recognizable crops, at the farmers market. Born in Laos, Mr. Yang is a member of the Hmong ethnic group, which drifted into Southeast Asia from southern China over the course of two centuries. Hmong soldiers allied with the United States during the Vietnam War, helping American soldiers navigate the nearly impenetrable, jungle-covered hills that link Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. When the war ended, the U.S. welcomed hundreds of thousands of Hmong to resettle here.
The largest Hmong populations are in California, Minnesota and Michigan. The small population in western Montana numbers only in the hundreds, and is a tight-knit community. Enthusiastic farmers, Hmong growers — like many immigrants and refugees — are drawn to the farmers market. It’s an environment that everyone understands.
I purchased Yang's last bunch of squash greens, and asked if his squash greens customers were mostly Hmong. "A lot," he said. "Also Africans, Vietnamese, Chinese and some Indian," he said. "Just a few Caucasians."
He is stocky and barrel-chested, with a reserved, watchful presence no doubt burnished by his time in the Montana hills. When he isn't farming, he's picking huckleberries or morels, or bow-hunting for elk. He agreed to show me his farm, in the middle of a mountain-ringed valley, and how to harvest squash greens.
The squash patch was spiked with clumps of small-eared Asian corn, the kind you sometimes encounter in Chinese food. He crouched on the edge of the patch and twisted the base of a new shoot where it attached to a larger, older branch (you can also use clippers).
"The more you pick, the more it grows. If you pick off there, it branches out on the side," he said. As he harvested, Yang was at the same time cleaning up his kabocha patch, pruning it into a neater version of itself, while directing where the squash fruit would grow, and keeping it out of the paths.
When I asked for a serving suggestion, he told me how to cook a Hmong soup called ntsis taub (pronounced "tse-tawb"). Made primarily of pork and squash tendrils and simply seasoned, ntsis taub is one of the most important Hmong dishes, he says. Especially among the elders.
Yang flavors his squash greens soup with little more than lemongrass, salt and MSG. Every cook makes it a little differently, he says, but it's always simple and brothy. Some add ginger, or lime leaf. Some add fish sauce or soy sauce. Some add chile. Some skip the MSG.
The one ingredient Yang uses that can be tricky to find is homemade from his own pigs. He saves pieces of pig skin with chunks of flesh attached, and deep-fries them until they are crispy, slightly puffed, and browned. Pork skin can be hard to find, at least of the un-fried variety. But pre-fried pork rinds in a bag are as far away as your local gas station, and Yang admits to using them on occasion, in a pinch.
During the summer months, determined cooks should be able to get their hands on some squash parts, either by placing a special order with a grower at the farmers market, or by raiding their own squash patch, or their neighbors’. Most squash patches could use a pruning.
You can add any part of any squash plant, from summer or winter squash, to ntsis taub. Flowers are optional, Yang says. It's more important to him that there are pieces of summer squash or immature winter squash, like pumpkin or kabocha, in the ntsis taub.
Yang sent me home from his farm with a bristly bag of greens, including stems, flowers, buds and tendrils, and two immature kabocha squashes. There was a pork chop waiting in my freezer at home, and lemongrass in the fridge. All I had to do was stop at the gas station for pork rinds on the way home, and I was ready to cook authentic Hmong squash soup with extra squash.
(Hmong Squash Plant Soup)
This brothy soup is a classic Hmong comfort food, with an understated, soothing and satisfying flavor. The stems, when properly peeled, are tender and mild. If any part of the greens might be challenging to eat it's the leaves, which can be oddly spongy. If the leaves are dusty, they can’t really be cleaned, so be picky. When making the soup for the first time, use the smallest leaves you can, and take it from there. The stems and tendrils and whatnot are much easier to appreciate.
The gas station fried pork rinds are very optional and not for everyone. Crispy out of the bag, they become soggy, yet fascinatingly chewy in the soup.
Yang's rendition is flavored with lemongrass only, but I have listed ginger and lime leaf as optional spices to play around with in search of your own preferred flavor.
2 lbs squash greens
2 lbs bone-in pork chop (or similar mix of meat, bone and fat)
2 stalks of lemongrass, cut into 1-inch sections and smashed
1 pound summer squash or immature winter squash
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 inches of ginger, sliced
1 or 2 kaffir lime leaves
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
MSG, to taste
Fried pork rinds
Cut the pork into cubes and add them, along with any bones, to a large, heavy-bottomed pot and fry. When the pork is browned, add the lemongrass and ginger or lime leaf, if using, and two quarts of water. Bring to a boil, and let it simmer as you trim the squash greens.
First, peel away the tough fibers that ring the stalk, in a manner similar to how some cooks pull the fibers from celery. Tug along the edge of the cut end of each stem. When you get hold of some fibers, pull down the stalk and toward the leaves. They hold together and come off in a sheet, so just two or three tugs should clean a stem. Don't worry about getting every inch of every single strand, just make sure you have pulled all around the bottom of each cut end. Soak the trimmed greens in a large vessel of water to rinse. Dry, and cut or break into 1-to-3-inch sections.
Cut the summer squash or immature winter squash into 2-inch chunks.
Remove any pieces of lemongrass, ginger, leaves or bones if you wish, while the water is shallow. Then add six more quarts of water. Bring to a boil.
Add the squash and greens to the soup, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Adjust seasonings with salt, soy, fish sauce, MSG, or whatever you feel. Serve garnished with fried pork rinds. Or not.
Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."
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