Pity the poor winter squash. It enjoys two high-profile holidays a year - an all-too-brief guest appearance as jack-o-lanterns, and another as pumpkin pie - before fading back into relative obscurity.
Well, enough is enough. I say it's time for squash to shine. From late September through February, farmers' markets abound with these humble members of the gourd family. Unlike their thin-skinned summer counterparts, such as zucchini, winter squash are not only delicious, they make wonderful decorations for the holidays.
Squash are also nutritional powerhouses, high in iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C.
With their hard, thick shells, which come in a breathtaking array of hues and textures, shapes and sizes, these squash can last up to a month without refrigeration, as long as they're kept cool and dry.
Talk about sustainability, how many other ornaments are still edible at the end of a holiday season (with the possible exception of that petrified fruitcake still languishing in your fridge)? You can also compost their skins and pulp, and dry their seeds so you can grow your own squash next year.
Winter squash grow well in a variety of Bay Area microclimates, and I have even successfully grown organic squash in wine barrels in my Berkeley back yard. The plants tend to be hardy and disease resistant, although squash beetles can be a problem. To help ensure healthy, vigorous plants, Dru Rivers of Full Belly Farm recommends regular watering, lots of compost, and pulling out weak or sickly plants. If beetle problems persist, you can pick them off by hand.
When harvesting or buying squash, choose ones that are heavy for their weight and have firm skins.
With a bumper crop of squash now available, some cooking suggestions are in order. I find even the names of different varieties tempting: sweet dumpling, acorn, delicata, Cinderella, sugar pumpkin, cheese pumpkin and buttercup.
There are literally hundreds of heirloom varieties as well. Get to know some of the growers at your local farmers' market and find out which varieties of winter squash they recommend.
It's important to note that the standard carving pumpkin is not meant for eating; the flesh is too stringy and the flavor inferior, although the seeds are delicious when toasted.
While most hard squash have sweet flesh, there is still a wide range of flavor complexities in the varieties. Some squash are more watery while others have a more pronounced squash flavor or stringy flesh. You may want to experiment to see what works best for your specific recipes.
Most of us are familiar with butternut squash. Its sweet, nutty, mellow flavor makes it ideal for both sweet and savory dishes. I use it when making gnocchi.
After the gnocchi are cooked and well-drained, I quickly pan-fry them in some extra virgin olive oil or unsalted butter, or even bacon fat if I'm feeling particularly decadent. Then I toss the gnocchi with wilted greens, bacon, and caramelized onion before grating Parmesan cheese on top. I used this recipe in a kids' cooking class recently and managed to convert a number of 10-year old boys into squash lovers.
Ann Austin of Left Field Farm is partial to delicata squash. ``They're so sweet, I just steam or bake them as is. They don't even need embellishment," she says, adding that she also adores kabocha squash, which she believes to be heartier and more flavorful. ``It's great for soups or stews."
When Dru Rivers is feeling lazy, she prefers simply to halve and bake sweet dumpling squash or, in a more inspired mood, she will stuff the baked haves with cooked rice and vegetables, then warm them through in the oven.
Rivers also favors red curry squash for its sweet flavor and deep orange hue, which make it particularly high in beta carotene. Hubbard squash, a large, ungainly yet ethereally beautiful blue-gray variety, often requires ``a drop on the garage floor to break open, but it's creamy, pumpkiny flesh is so good, it's worth the hassle," Rivers says with a laugh.
Recently, when I found myself with some leftover cooked squash, I tossed it into a stir-fry just at the end of cooking. It tasted wonderful enhanced with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce and bitter greens.
You can also try baking sugar pumpkins until they are lightly caramelized then peel, slice, and serve them with a handful of fresh arugula, candied nuts and some shaved Pecorino cheese. Drizzle with a vinaigrette of roasted pumpkin seed oil or good-quality balsamic vinegar and you've got a treat.
Squash is also well-suited for use in baked goods, such as breads and cakes, or as a subtle flavoring for classic desserts. It's time to give that tired pumpkin pie recipe a vacation. How about a pumpkin creme brulee with ginger cream and thyme tuiles for Thanksgiving this year?
The following growers sell winter squash at Bay Area farmers markets: Full Belly Farm (Berkeley, Palo Alto), Left Field Farm (Berkeley), Riverdog Farm (Berkeley), Terra Firma Farm (Berkeley, Marin), Phillips Farm (Berkeley).
1 small butternut squash, halved
Extra virgin olive oil
2 large eggs
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 to 1 ½ cups flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil a parchment-lined baking sheet, and place squash cut side down. Bake until soft, about one hour.
Remove from oven, and, when cool enough to handle, scoop out seeds, remove skin, and discard. Run squash flesh through a food mill or potato ricer, then place in a fine strainer and press out as much liquid as you can.
Transfer squash to a large bowl, add eggs, and mix well. Add salt and flour, then mix to for m a thick, soft batter. Refrigerate, covered, at least one hour or overnight.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Using two tablespoons (one to scoop batter, one to push batter off spoon), drop spoonfuls of batter into water (I usually cook no more than six at a time). If gnocchi fall apart, you need to mix in a bit more flour into batter.
Cook until gnocchi have floated to surface and have simmered for 1-2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to colander. You may served gnocchi immediately with your favorite sauce, or pan-fry as suggested above.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org