Autumn hits LA when the liquid amber trees start to change color, the kids bring home the latest flu strain, and winter squash hits the market stalls. Undaunted by size or heft, farm vendors pile up the squash like so many malformed and colorful boulders (it comes round, elongated, pear-shaped, lobed, and scalloped). Looking for the right one for the evening's repast at your local market can quickly become an I Love Lucy-esque comedy of errors as the precariously perched hills do their best to bewilder you, Jenga-style.
What makes them "winter" squash is one part harvest timing (they often take over three months to mature) and one part storage (once harvested, their hard skins give them a pretty impressive shelf life well into winter). They are also rarely eaten raw, and do exceptionally well when baked or steamed, giving you a good excuse to fire up the ovens in the colder months to come.
Delicata squash, also called sweet potato squash, is the darling of the winter squash world. For starters, the skin is scads easier to peel than its thicker-skinned cousins. The tender yellow flesh tastes like sweet starchy gloriola - a fluffy version of sweet potatoes that practically begs to be whipped with butter and cinnamon. And the size is about right as an accompaniment for a meal for two - around six to ten inches long and as thick as a man's fist. They should feel heavier than they look and have firm skin throughout (no bruises or soft spots). Living up to their name, they can be stored for a little under a month at room temperature (we recommend a root cellar or other cold storage), which is a little shorter than some other winter squash varieties. But we doubt they'll be lurking around your kitchen for that long.
The Sunshine Kabocha is a three to four pound showstopper, which is probably why the vendor created a vibrant endcap with them here. It's reminiscent of our local fall pumpkins in shape, but the similarity ends there. It has a Day-Glo red-orange skin that covers a nearly stringless bright orange flesh that is nutty and sweet. The size is about perfect for two pies - one for midnight snacks and the other for more midnight snacks...or to take to a friend's house. Baked halved and face down in a pan of water until soft.
With its vaguely Caucasoid skin, it's tempting to choose the butternut with the most suggestive shape, but you are probably better off picking the shortest and least bulby one you can find. Their tough skin is hard to peel off and the larger and more curvy specimens have been guilty of some of our more gruesome kitchen accidents. So safety first - find one that fits well in hand. The bright orange-yellow flesh within is especially dense and holds up well when cooked into risotto or vegetarian etouffee, adding a rich, starchy sweetness that benefits from a kiss of garam masala.
Pasadena Farmers Market, Victory Park, North Sierra Madre Boulevard and Paloma Street, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Torrance Farmers Market, Wilson Park, 2200 Crenshaw Blvd., 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
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Old Town Calabasas Farmers Market, 23504 Calabasas Rd., 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
Long Beach Saturday Market (East Village), 400 East 1st Street, on 1st Between Elm and Linden, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
Santa Monica (Saturday, organic), 3rd Street at Arizona Avenue, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Felicia Friesema also writes More, please.