by Kate Heyhoe
Autumn hayrides, apple picking, country walks...and squash. Bushels of fiery orange, moss green, yellow gold and creamy white. Long and slender, short and fat, perfectly round, regular and irregular, ribbed and knobby, bumpy and smooth. From behemoths to perky miniatures, squashes mark the passage from the long, hot summer to crisp, cool fall.
Even zucchini, the most common of the "summer squashes," flourishes heavily at the beginning of autumn, while crates of the hard-skinned "winter squashes" are piled high into markets and road side stands. What's especially exciting are the new varieties of squash being created by seed companies and agriculturists around the world. Some of the more unusual are more likely to be found in specialty markets or small stands, as my partner and I recently discovered.
In fact, my mate and I found four totally new—at least to us—varieties of squash on a recent weekend excursion. After the dry, parching days of summer, the chance to explore the countryside and revel in the cool breezes is irresistable. Hiking, biking and just plain walks renew the soul's spirit and my personal desire to seek out the new season's bounty, get back in the kitchen and then cook up a storm.(Pictured: Carnival Squash)
Oddly enough, we did not go out in search of squash; instead, the allure was apples. There is a town (and this is being generous) in the southern California mountains named Oak Glen, which is devoted to apples. Acres of apples, all varieties, can be bought or picked yourself, and everything that can possibly be made from apples, is also sold here—apple butter, apple syrup, cider, wine, pies, cakes, dried apples, and more.
Normally, I stay away from such potential tourist traps, but this place is really charming, despite a few poorly-produced instances of crass commercial trappings. We arrived early in the morning and as is typical of mountain towns in the fall, encountered a blanket of dense fog so thick as to completely obscure the various attractions of the area. The Oak Glen community stradles a winding road, with apple ranches, bed and breakfasts and shops on either side. After driving from the "Welcome to Oak Glen" sign to the "Thanks for Coming!" sign in a matter of minutes, we turned around, determined to battle back the fog and returned to the center of the strip known as Oak Tree Village. There we hunkered down with the LA Times and a country breakfast while we waited for the fog to lift.
As soon as it did we were off. First stop: Snowline Apple Ranch. For $8 you can pick your own raspberries, three pints worth (and they don't charge you for the ones you eat as you go). Raspberries are in season there only in August and September, so this was the last chance of the season. Half the fun is watching the children pick raspberries for the first time. Seniors unfold their lawn-chairs on a manicured grass field under the shade of a chestnut tree, adjacent to the raspberry patch, while fathers try futilely to control their youngsters who leap joyously into the raspberry and apple fields. It's a good feeling. And except for those who wish to pick fruits, none of the ranches charge admittance just to be there or to picnic. Like I said, it's a good feeling.
After protecting our sweet, delicate raspberries within the sturdy walls of an ice chest, we were off to the next ranch—which is where we found a mountain of squashes. Los Rios Rancho has U-Pick raspberries and apples, a bakery, winery (with tasting bar), old-fashioned hayrides and a shady picnic area. But it was the sign outside that read "Organic Squash" that drew me in.
In one corner of the wooden floored shop, crates of squash and gourds were propped open, inviting even the tiniest hands to touch and explore. One grandmother sweetly enouraged her grandson to pick a smaller squash for—as she pointed out about the melon-size green squash he was heaving—"That's a lot to carry!" Indeed, squash can be quite heavy, even for a fit but slender grandmother.
Squash is also sold by the weight, too, so it's best to pay attention to the prices when buying. These squash were mix 'n match at 99 cents a pound, a reasonable fare, especially being organically grown. I mentioned earlier we found four previously unknown varieties: Carnival, White Acorn, Stripetti ( a cross between Delicata and Spaghetti squashes) and a personal fave, "Eat it All." This was the one the grandson had set his sights on. (Pictured: Eat It All Squash)
Now, when I see such a variety of gorgeous fall vegetables, a wave of Martha-Stewart-passion overwhelms me. I immediately conjure up ideas for decorative centerpieces, in baskets mixed with fall foliage, acorns, nuts and the like. But in the interests of food journalism, I determined to eat these squash instead, to see how each differed in taste. After all, I could always go back to Oak Glen for the centerpieces later.
The background behind the ranch and these particular squashes is rather interesting. The owners of Los Rio Rancho go back four generations. Howard Rivers created the largest produce market in Los Angeles at the turn of the century, later to become today's bustling Los Angeles Produce Market. In 1906 the family purchased their current mile-high homestead in Oak Glen from the Wilshire family (an off-shoot of Gaylord Wilshire, for whom much of Los Angeles is named). The family had other acreage throughout southern California, and each generation become involved in some way. One of the growers became part of the Rivers' extended family, a man named Jose Lopez, who though retired now and in his sixties, still grows his own organic squash and sells only to the Rivers family. Robbie & Mark Robertson, nephews of Frank Rivers, manage the ranch. "Jose is like a brother and an uncle to us," remarks Robbie.
From his fields in Sage, California, Jose works on developing some of his own strains, including a black pumpkin ideal for Halloween, but much of the new squash varieties come out of large seed companies, like Burpee. So, you may be able to find these or other new varieties in your local area. Besides being a most prolific grower, squash are extremely well-suited to hybridization.
What did we think of these new breeds? To best evaluate each squash, we cooked them all the same way: baked at 350 degrees until tender, usually about an hour. We then served them with sweet butter, salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste.
Photo: Stripetti Squash
Carnival—The colorful half-and-half colored skin makes this one an ideal centerpiece addition. Sweet, orange flesh.
Stripetti—A cross between spaghetti squash and delicata, the threads in this squash are softer and more mild, with more corn-like flavor than the usual spaghetti variety.
Eat It All—Our favorite! The seeds of this are delicious roasted, as with pumpkin seeds. The sublime taste really will make you eat it all. Sweeter than most squash.
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