Saturday, February 20, 2010

Butternut and garden centers

I'm a fan of the big box stores.

For tools, soil, pots, additives and all sorts of garden hardware and accessories they always have the most reliable stock, and the best prices. For plants and nursery starts, I prefer the smaller, family-run greenhouses, although for unfamiliar plants, I'll head to whichever nursery I think will have the best staff.

As you get into gardening, you start to learn where to go for what. There's a Home Depot very close to my house; I always go there first because of that proximity, and I always regret it. It's poorly run, staff is not only not knowledgeable, if they don't know something they will lie to you or try to convince you that you are wrong (for instance telling me that there is no difference between potting soil and seed starting mix). Further, when I walked in there about two weeks ago to start gearing up for seed starting and spring prep, the place was in chaos. Soil out of stock, seeds unshelved, carts and crates blocking the aisles, no dedicated staff. When I mentioned that gardeners start in February, I was told "not experienced gardeners." Hmmm.

So I travel the additional 3 miles to Lowe's, where I find the shelves stocked, staffed and stupendous. I bought several seed packets (I always go for the big brands on hard-to-grow plants, especially if I'm new to either the plant or to starting that plant from seed. I like the utter reliability of Burpees or Ferry Morse.) I don't know if it's Lowe's and Home Depot in general, or those ones in particular, but that Lowe's gets it for gardeners, while the Home Depot doesn't.

I have a favorite nursery, too, where I go for starts on solanums, onions, and herbs. They have utterly reliable plants, a huge variety and selection, and a nice country ambience. What they don't have is staff. Not just knowledgeable staff. Any staff. There are the gardeners, who won't talk to you (and possibly don't speak the same language I do), and there's the guy at the register, who redefines the concept of "taciturn." To shop at this nursery, you have to know what you're doing. So this is a nursery for the experienced gardener.

Then there's Gethsemane Gardens (really), which I've been going to since they were a little Christmas tree seller 25 years ago on an empty lot near our old apartment. They grew with their customers; even a few years ago you could still give them a check with no ID. Now they're one of the premier garden centers on the North Side of Chicago, with a national reputation. They've specialized in pocket gardens and containers (at which they excel), but they've lost their appeal to me as a community. However, I still go to Gethsemane when I have a garden question. I know there will be a specialist in whatever plant I'm thinking about.

So what makes a good garden center? Knowing which one to go to for your needs. The one that makes you feel comfortable, that offers you knowledge that you may not have, and accepts your needs and knowledge as valid. The one with the best price, or the one with the prettiest plant. The best garden center is lots of garden centers.

Now, what does this all have to do with butternut squash? Nothing. It's just what I'm making tonight.

Roasted butternut apple cider soup with toasted almonds

One medium to large butternut squash, roasted
1 medium or 1/2 large onion, sliced and carmelized
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup apple cider
1 cup almond slices, lightly toasted

To roast the squash, cut into quarters and scoop out the seeds. (Conserve the seeds in a 2 qt sauce pan, along with the onion skins.) Place meat-side down on a lightly greased cookie sheet, and bake at 350F/160C for an hour, or until you can easily insert a knife. When it's cool, scoop out the meat and transfer to a 1 gallon soup pot. Set aside. Add the skins to the seeds with some green peppercorns, salt, and water, and boil it for the stock, about 20 minutes.

While the stock is cooking, toast the almonds in a dry frying pan, about 5 minutes at high heat; keep the almonds moving so they don't burn. Then carmelize the onions in the same pan, in about 2 pats of butter.

Add the stock and the apple cider to the meat and blend smooth with an immersible blender. Add the onions and the almonds. Serve with a splash of cream or half-and-half.

Best thing about this soup is the smell-butter, almond, pepper corn. Yum. Can't get that at a big box store.


  1. I'm a HD kind of guy because they are everywhere. Whenever I got into Lowe's I always feel like I'm out of my element because it seems to be in working order. It is like you describe, and I'm just not accustomed to having things in stock and in their place. How do people find potting mix on the shelf at Lowe's and not on the floor, under the plant benches like at Home Depot?

  2. There's probably an entire psychological sub discipline based on which type of garden center one prefers.