Winter squash are summer's last big hurrah. They need all the blazing heat and sun of summer to reach their full potential and are harvested only when their world starts to dip into chilly temperatures, their full, gravid bellies clinging to spent, withering vines. Their thick skins allow them to keep well -- months, in some cases -- though they often make their splashy debut at Thanksgiving, sometimes drowning in so much butter and sugar that you forget you're eating a vegetable (technically a fruit, but whatever).
Acorn and butternut squash suffer the most from this treatment, but where the real sin occurs is with the more subtle heirloom squash that are available at the markets. All squash are not equal -- and many of the older heirlooms have interesting attributes worthy of a little care and attention. We've listed five of our favorites, along with where you can find them before the holiday, after the jump.
5. The Blue Hubbard:
The Blue Hubbard is a large (it can get up to 30 pounds), tough-skinned winter squash that comes with multiple entertaining histories that reach back to the 1700s (things got a little hazy around 1867). It's also the most entertaining to prep for cooking -- the easiest method is to put it in a bag and smash it on the ground. Cover the pieces with brown sugar and butter and bake. The flesh is drier and starchier than most winter squash, making it a good substitute for pumpkin -- it cooks down into almost custardlike creaminess. Jaime Farms, which will be at the Santa Monica market this Wednesday, carries the Blue Hubbard along with Carnival acorn squash and red kabocha.
4. Delicata squash:
Good things do come in small packages. The Delicata winter squash requires the least amount of adulteration. It comes naturally sweet with a light, juicy flesh that helps it steam from within while baking. The result is a nearly puddinglike, sweet, bright yellow squash puree. If you must gild the lily for the holiday table, let it be with butter and a little honey and salt. The Delicata ranges in size from a handful to a footlong baguette, making it great for smaller gatherings and near-bursting market bags. Jimenez Family Farms has the Delicata, along with the equally juicy acorn squash, in multiple sizes and will be at the Wednesday Santa Monica market.
3. Turban squash:
The turban squash, named for its shape even though it looks more like an acorn than the acorn squash does, is a mildly sweet pain in the ass. Its unwieldy shape and super-dense flesh make it a cutting-board challenge. The flesh is also thick with a narrow seed cavity, which means doing a cathartic ground smash won't yield the same results as with the more hollow Blue Hubbard. But if you can get past the prep, the turban squash is actually one of the more interesting-tasting winter squashes. It's very nutty, almost like hazelnuts, and has a creamy flesh that lends itself superbly to soups. Underwood Family Farms with be at the Culver City farmers market today with plenty of these on hand. That, or you can take a holiday drive out to its farm stand in Somis.
2. Banana Squash:
Banana squash made its entrance in the United States, by way of South America, in 1893. Despite taking a full six months from seed to harvest, people planted the elongated (hence the name), flesh-colored winter squash each year. Its biggest fans were here in California thanks to lengthy, frost-free stretches that allowed it to flourish. But it was the size that mattered. Banana squash can grow anywhere from 2 to 4 feet long with an average 8-inch diameter at the middle, yielding an squash that weighs anywhere from 10 to 40 pounds. The typical modern market consumer isn't looking for 40 pounds of honeyed, bright orange, dense pumpkinlike flesh, so the banana squash fell out of favor while other more compact varieties, like the butternut and acorn, took over. Sabrina Bohn of Shear Rock Farms out in Santa Paula grows several heirloom winter squash, including the banana, and offers some of the larger specimens in more manageable, cut-up segments. Still, most of Bohn's bananas were market-bag-friendly size.
"We will have plenty," Bohn emphasized. "Plenty for the holiday rush." Cook as you would butternut -- the flesh is the same density although it's just a little bit sweeter. You can find her and her mountains of carefully tended heirloom squash (and fresh pressed California olive oil) tonight at the Highland Park Farmers Market.
1. Tromboncino Squash:
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Troboncino, like the acorn, banana and turban, is a squash named for its looks. The harvests from Weiser Family Farms are allowed to curl and bend on the ground, forming large loops that can easily be slung over the shoulder. Tromboncino aren't often allowed to evolve to their winter squash form -- they're also edible in their smaller, green, summer squash stage -- as the long, winding necks can break with rougher handling, making them a bit too fragile for market. But telling Alex Weiser that he can't bring something to market, especially a sweet and tasty Italian heirloom like the Tromboncino, is like waving the cape in front of the bull and telling it not to charge. And thankfully, he does anyway. Along with being interesting, the Tromboncino's neon orange flesh cooks beautifully, the long neck creating uniform, sweet potato-like rounds in the baking dish. Weiser Family Farms will be at the Wednesday Santa Monica market.
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