Confession: I'm obsessed with winter squash.
Don't get me wrong. I love peaches, blueberries, tomatoes and all of summer's soft, swollen produce. But give me the hard, firm rind of an acorn squash or the rock-solid, pale skin of the butternut and I just melt.
Their flesh, rich and mellow, is perfect for either savory or sweet dishes, and it turns out they have a storied history -- a roughly 10,000-year legacy of cultivation and sacred status in many South American cultures. Yes'm, come October this pilgrim is interested in more than just pumpkins.
Yet despite my infatuation with these cool-weather veggies, I didn't know how to select them. Around at the farmer's market felt a lot like playing the legume lottery. I'd toss one into my tote, hightail it home, and two times out of three, find myself chopping into a fibrous, mildewed mess.
Enter Nina Planck.
The author of "Real Food: What to Eat and Why" (Bloomsbury, $14.95), Planck is a farm girl whom I trust. At 9 she was practicing eco-growing methods on the family's 60-acre plot of land in Loudoun County, Va. During her teenage years she learned about ethical farming practices and soil retention at the hip of her father, Chip. After college she became a reporter for Time and did a spell as a speechwriter for the American ambassador to Britain. (Guess the ol' "you can't keep a girl down on the farm" adage is true!) But soon her roots came calling, and in 2003 Planck became the director of New York City's famed Union Square Greenmarket. So needless to say, when she speaks, I listen.
We meet up at the Greenmarket, and quickly dive into a stereotypical southern-gal-in-the-big-city bonding session (minus the Bourbon, though probably only because we met at 10:30 a.m.). But I quickly kill the chit-chat. After all, I'm on a mission. I want to know how to tell a good gourd from a stinker.
It's simple, said Nina. "The stem. Never forget the stem. It should be dry and firmly attached."
The stem! Who'd have imagined?
"A tasty, healthful squash will be heavy for its size, with a thick, hard shell showing no soft spots, mold, cuts or bruises. And when it comes to fruits and vegetables, buy local and seasonal first, organic second. Those are my priorities."
Local and organic? Isn't that too much of a good thing?
Not really, she explained. One is about taste, another's about responsibility.
"Organic foods are naturally produced. They've been cultivated without artificial pesticides, artificial fertilizers or genetically modified ingredients or irradiation.
"'Local' comes from about 100 miles away. But that number isn't hard and fast -- it depends on your neighborhood and what farms you have nearby. And because of its proximity, local food just tastes better."
As we continue to make our way around the produce stalls, buying enough butternut, acorn, Kabocha and Monk's Head squash to last me through a the spring, Nina takes the time to introduce me to a number of the farmers around the market. (Click here for a bonus video: The Differences Between Summer and Winter Squash.)
I soak it all up and take faith in how simple it all is. Check the vegetable's stem, weight, and shell. Buy local and organic whenever possible. Put your faith in the soil -- and the people -- that grow your food. Delicious.
Roasted Butternut Squash With Jalapenos and Goat Cheese
Fall flavors with a twist. You'll love the sweetness of roasted butternut squash coupled with the spice of jalapeno and the creaminess of a young goat cheese. Best served as a side dish but I've been known to make it a full meal.
4 6-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
1 2 lb butternut squash, peeled, cubed ½ inch
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
15 fresh sage leaves
2 tsps jalapeno, finely chopped
1.5 oz goat cheese (chevre)
3-4 TBSPs extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss cubed butternut squash with 3 TBSPs olive oil, kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread squash in one even layer on one large baking sheet or two smaller baking sheets. Bake for 35 minutes, making sure to stir squash half way through. When squash is tender and has finished cooking, transfer to a bowl to partially cool.
Over a medium flame, heat 1 TBSP olive oil in a small sautee pan. Add sage leaves and cook until fragrant and crisped. The leaves will turn from green to a very dark green to almost brown. Don't worry—they will taste wonderful! Once crisp and slightly curled at edges, remove sage from pan and place on a sheet of paper towel to drain.
To the bowl of warm squash, crumble sage leaves and goat cheese and add jalepeno. Stir thoroughly. Taste for salt and pepper and season accordingly.
**Tip: Instead of caramelizing onions in a separate skillet, roast them along with the butternut squash. This cuts down on dirty dishes and time.
Roasted Carrots with Garlic and Thyme (from Nina Planck's "The Farmer's Market Cookbook")
These roasted carrots are sweet, smoky and intense—an honest, healthful accompaniment to almost any protein.
1 1/3rd lb carrots
2 TBSPs fresh thyme, finely chopped*
2 TBSPs extra virgin olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
Set the oven to 400 degrees. For an alternative to round slices, hold the carrot at the fat end, cut off a diagonal slice, spin carrot a quarter turn, and cut another slice. Continue as if sharpening a pencil. It is essential that the pieces be of equal thickness.
Cover the thyme and garlic with oil for 30 minutes if you have the time. Mix well with the carrots, salt and roast for ten minutes, or until edges begin to brown. Shake the pan if they are sticking and turn down the heat to 350 degrees and roast for another 15-20 minutes, until the carrots are soft.
*Carrots are also delicious with sage and rosemary (chop them very finely). Or try whole garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half if very large.
Plumb and Roasted Sweet Corn Salsa (from Nina Planck's "The Farmer's Market Cookbook")
The "shoulder season" of late summer, early fall brings an impressive variety of fruits and vegetables to your local farmer's market. Make the most of the bountiful harvest with this salsa, a perfect combination of past heat and upcoming cool.
Serve with tortilla chips or pitas stuffed with shredded chicken
4 ears sweet corn, husks and silks removed
1 TBSP olive oil (for corn)
½ red onion
½ - ¾ Habanera or Scotch Bonnet, finely chopped, seeds removed
8 ripe Victoria plums, halved
½ orange bell pepper, cut in strips
1 tsp high quality extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp honey or 1 tbsp apple juice (both optional)
Heat the grill. Rub olive oil and salt all over the ears of corn.
Grill for about 40 minutes, turning every 10 minutes as the kernels turn brown. When the kernels are soft, cut them off the cob, leaving the tough white part on the ear but getting all the flesh.
Dice the onion and chili in a food processor. Add the plums and sweet pepper in chunks, pulsing briefly until they are pea-sized.
Mix with the corn, olive oil, honey or apple juice if using, and salt to taste. This tastes even better the next day.
More of Brooke Parkhurst's cooking videos can be found at elasticwaist.com.