Now is the best time of year for the Napa Farmers Market, according to Mark Haberger of Big Ranch Farms. Shoppers can still find the vibrant vegetables of summer but now combined with the bounty of fall.
For many of us, fall means winter squash. You’ll find a vast array of these oddly shaped gourds at several market stalls. They really represent the colors of fall. The oranges, yellows, soft greens and browns match the changing leaves on trees and vines throughout the valley. We have our own fall color show at the market.
Some winter squash have soft skin that you can eat. Others have a hard shell that allows them to store well for months. Thea Rittenhouse of Gauchito Hill Farm grows Delicata, Red Kuri, Winter Luxury, Kakai, Navajo Hubbard and Rouge Vif D’Etampes (the Cinderella pumpkin). Other favorites are butternut, acorn and spaghetti squashes, plus all kinds of decorative pumpkins.
As you think ahead to Halloween and Thanksgiving, you can’t help but think about squash. Many people decorate their house and holiday table with them. And what a bonus: You get to eat the decorations.
Karen Schuppert, a nutrition expert and Napa Farmers Market board member, says that squash are high in fiber, low in fat and a great source of vitamins A and C. Some studies show that squash have anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory qualities. According to Thea, winter squash are some of the most heavily sprayed vegetables on non-organic farms. That’s one more reason to do your shopping at the farmers market.
From the cook’s perspective, squash are very versatile. You can steam, roast, saute or even microwave them. Preparing squash can be as simple as roasting them in the oven until soft and then serving them in the shell. Or they can be stuffed, pureed or made into soup. And don’t forget the seeds. I have roasted the seeds from carved-out pumpkins many times, but they never really tasted good. Always seemed like chewing on a stick.
Well, I learned something recently. You need to find hull-less seeds. Thea’s favorite seeds come from the Kakai squash. This website shows how to roast them: commonsensehome.com/the-best-pumpkin-seeds.
On a recent trip to New Orleans, I tasted a dish that demonstrated how truly versatile squash can be. At Balise, a great little restaurant in the Warehouse District, the garde-manger chef made me a dish called Autumn Squashes. He carefully arranged baked Delicata, pickled Butternut and pan-seared Acorn squashes on the plate and added a wedge of Camembert cheese. Sage, pumpkin seeds and a splash of apple cider vinaigrette finished it off. Delightful.
My favorite thing to do with squash is to make soup. Butternut squash soup is a Thanksgiving tradition at my house. I don’t really have a recipe but it doesn’t seem to matter. Quantity depends on the size of the squash and the amount of stock you use.
Cut a butternut squash in half (careful, you might need a cleaver), and roast it cut side down in a baking dish with a little water until the skin is soft. While it roasts, saute some onions or leeks in a little olive oil or butter until soft. I tend to put pancetta in everything, so sometimes I will fry up a little and then cook the onions in the rendered fat. A splash of white wine or sherry loosens everything up. Add the squash flesh and some good chicken stock and let it simmer for a bit. I often add a smoked chili (such as chipotle) to give the soup a little kick. Add salt and pepper to taste.
I sometimes add a little lemon to the mix. Puree the soup in a blender. I like my soup to be silky, so my final step is to pass the soup through a fine-mesh sieve. Serve hot or cold with a dollop of creme fraiche, sour cream or yogurt.
Apparently, winter squash, like turkey, contains tryptophan — the amino acid that makes some people drowsy. So enjoy your squash soup and then go take a nap.
The Napa Farmers Market takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., May through October, in the Oxbow Public Market south parking lot. The Farmers Market accepts WIC, CalFresh food stamps through EBT (electronic benefits transfer), and the Senior Nutrition Program (available through WIC). CalFresh users can receive double the value of their stamps at the market’s information booth. For information and upcoming events, visit NapaFarmersMarket.org or visit the market on Facebook.