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.