This is the month that roadside pumpkin patches will begin to dot the urban landscape. As surely as imported Christmas trees will forest empty lots right around Thanksgiving time, seas of orange pumpkins will soon blanket empty lots and narrow right-of-ways luring customers to the prelude of the annual Halloween festival.
Pumpkins will be selected and carted home to be carved and lit on late October evenings and many city-bound dwellers will participate in quasi-pagan rituals that allow them to dress up in outlandish costumes and bedeck their homes with spiderwebs and styrofoam tombstones. A half-dozen homes within a mile of my house are already sporting the popular witch wrapped around the tree trunk decoration in the front yard. Halloween is a time when grownups get to play; it’s fun for pretty much everyone, and a favorite L.A. holiday.
The sea of orange in a farmer’s field signifies much more than a celebration of carved jack-o’lanterns. While many farmers plant early in the year for a profitable Halloween, the fall harvest of pumpkins and squash signify a change of season, when seemingly the world’s attention turns indoors to the pleasures of fall’s hardy vegetables. Early cooking pumpkins at the farmers’ market appeared in August, but they were short-lived and anyone who wanted to plan ahead for the holidays had an excellent opportunity to bake and freeze some excellent specimens. Carving pumpkins appear in October but are not edible and lose all of their marketability sometime right after noon on Halloween eve. Cooking pumpkins and edible winter squash, however, are just coming into their prime and will last well into the New Year.
One of the most popular cooking pumpkins is the beautiful orange Rouge Vif d’Etampes – a fiery orange squash reminiscent of Cinderella’s pumpkin. This squash is often sold with trailing vines to accentuate its fairy tale appearance and is a favorite of chefs. True cooking pumpkins are usually small and classically pumpkin shaped with round orange bodies and perfect curved stems. Very few people these days take to time to bake or steam pumpkins for home-made pies, but the process is so simple that everyone should cook at least one pumpkin for a pie. Cooked pumpkin can be stored in the freezer throughout the holiday season and is a wonderful fall ritual to observe. Some of the best-cooking pumpkins are the Baby Bear, Jack Be Little, and Small Sugar. Decorative mini-pumpkins are irresistible but only a few are suitable for cooking. These little pumpkins are either mini-rounds with nice handles or small, flattened specimens with deep ribs. They will serve as lovely table decorations for several weeks.
Winter squash share the same genus and species as pumpkins, but are much more varied in size, color and shape. Winter squash are edible, and serve as table decorations as well. The tan, wide-bottomed Butternut is a perennial favorite for good reason. Its dark orange flesh is sweet and flavorful, and it can be easily peeled raw for sauteeing or halved and baked. Like all squashes, the Butternut can be cooked, mashed and frozen for later or used in everything from soup to cakes. The dark green Acorn squash is classically prepared by baking it halved and filled with butter, maple syrup, and nuts. It has stringy flesh that is easily scooped from its shell. A lovely variation on the Acorn is the variegated white, green, and orange Sweet Dumpling squash – a somewhat flatter and shorter version of the Acorn with thick orange flesh. It makes a beautiful presentation when baked whole and stuffed. Many farmers are growing the bumpy, tan Futtsu squash, which has a pumpkin shape and deep ribs. This smallish squash is striking to behold and has fine-grained, sweet and nutty flesh. Equally under-appreciated is the elongated Delicata – a small elongated white squash marked with green and orange stripes. This squash is perfect for halving and baking, and is also ideal for stuffing.
One of the most popular fall squashes is the Japanese Kabocha – a slightly flattened, round squash that can be either green or orange. The Kabocha is one of the sweetest fiberless squashes, and has a thin, edible skin. Similar in appearance to the Kabocha is the bright orange Gold Nugget squash, which is easy to store and keep. Later in the season, we will welcome the Blue Hubbard, the exceptional Queensland Blue and the huge Tahitian and Banana squashes. An added benefit of fall and winter squashes is that they are so striking in appearance that they can be used as decorations, and they will keep for months if kept in a cool, dry place.Most of the cooking squash and pumpkins yield delicious, edible seeds that can be roasted and enjoyed alone or as toppings or garnish. Some beautiful white “Ghost” pumpkins should be on the market soon for holiday decorations. Non-edible, fanciful gourds are available in sizes from mini to maxi, and look out for the bright green, speckled goose neck gourd, which resembles nothing less than a large sleepy fowl. Enjoy the season!