Getting Squashed

I always relish the gentle change of seasons, but the transition from summer to autumn may be my favorite time of all. Nowhere is this evolution more apparent than at the farmers’ market, where the vibrant shades of summer produce are gradually replaced by soft golden hues that mimic the colors of autumn leaves. We now have the opportunity to savor the last of the vine-ripened tomatoes while we celebrate the arrival of fall’s winter squash and fuzzy kiwi fruit. The best of both worlds.

Crisp mornings, shorter days, and cozy evenings at home rekindle my nesting instinct. No trip to the farmers’ market is complete without a wreath for the front door; an armload of unripe persimmons destined for display in a favorite blue and white china bowl; or a family of big bumpy pumpkins and other winter squash to decorate the front porch. But if you consider winter squash to be purely decorative, you’re missing out on a lot.101891960

Everybody seems to understand summer squash. There’s nothing terribly mysterious about zucchini. But winter squash? Not so much. Summer squash is harvested while the skins and seeds are still young and tender. Winter squash have mature, hard rinds and seeds that require toasting to be edible. That’s as complicated as it gets. Sure, winter squash can be huge and unwieldy, but all that’s needed to unleash the magic is a sharp knife and a bit of confidence…which comes easily with a little experience.

Look for squash with no nicks, soft spots, or signs of decay. Uncut, their thick shells form a protective barrier around the flesh so they remain fresh at cool room temperatures for months….which makes those temporary decorative uses around the house not so frivolous after all! Winter squash should be refrigerated only after it has been cut. If you want to prepare for the months ahead, cooked, pureed squash can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Winter squash is amazingly versatile: cut it into cubes, seasoned, and roasted for gluten-free “croutons”; pureed for soups, or added to minestrone or other soups; sliced or cut into chunks for a side dish; added to lasagna or other pasta dishes; or paired with fresh sage and used as a filling for ravioli. Please also know that when pureed and seasoned, like pumpkin, butternut squash makes an incredibly good pie.

Friends seem to congregate more than ever this month, as our calendars begin to fill with gatherings of every variety. What to serve? Nothing is more familiar—or easier—than a quesadilla, but add an unexpected ingredient and these little triangles of gooey goodness jump to the next level.

This version was inspired by something I ate at a cozy little café in a coastal town in Washington state. I’m not instinctively drawn to coffee joints that serve nothing but their take on vegetarian food, but it was the only place open on this cool and drizzly afternoon. I still remember the look of barely-concealed horror on my (non-foodie) friend’s face when I ordered the day’s special, a butternut squash quesadilla. Although it was indeed served on a nasty whole wheat tortilla with far too little cheese (or maybe some crazy cheese substitute), I knew the flavor combination had definite possibilities. And so I got to work.

These make a zesty appetizer to serve with cocktails; or a perfectly satisfying light lunch, served alongside a big tossed green salad. They’re so good, you may even convert a horrified friend.

Quesadillas with Butternut Squash and Chiles

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing the griddle
6 ounces peeled and seeded butternut or other winter squash, coarsely grated or finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 green onions (scallions), thinly sliced
1 1/2 teaspoons seeded and finely chopped jalapeño or serrano chile pepper
1 garlic clove, minced or crushed through a press
1 to 1 1/2 cups (4 to 6 ounces) shredded Monterey Jack cheese
4 (7-inch) flour tortillas
Chipotle Crema and fresh cilantro, for garnish

1. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the squash and season with salt and cumin. Cook, stirring, until just tender, for 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the green onions, jalapeño, and garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat.

2. Heat a griddle over medium-high heat until hot. (Alternatively, cook quesadillas one-or-two-at-a-time in large skillet.)

3. Brush the griddle lightly with oil and add the tortillas, leaving some space between them. Spread one-fourth of the squash mixture over half of each tortilla; then sprinkle evenly with cheese. Fold the tortillas in half.

4. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until lightly browned, before flipping them over with a spatula. Continue cooking until the cheese is melted and bubbly-hot on the inside and the tortillas are lightly browned on the outside, for 2 to 3 minutes longer. Transfer to a cutting board.

5. Using a pizza wheel or a large knife, cut each quesadilla into 3 pie-shaped wedges. If desired, pipe or drizzle a bit of Chipotle Crema over the top of each wedge. Sprinkle with coarsely chopped fresh cilantro, or garnish the platter with cilantro sprigs. Makes 12 wedges, to serve 3 to 4.

To make Chipotle Crema:

In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup sour cream and a pinch of salt.
Mix in 1/2 to 1 teaspoon (to taste) minced canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce. Stir until blended. Use at once, or cover and refrigerate.

Variations:

–If you still find corn at the farmers’ market, slice the kernels from one large ear and add them to the squash mixture before cooking.
–Grated zucchini or thin shreds of kale also make delicious additions. (And are an easy way to sneak more vegetables into your diet.)
— Adding well-drained cooked black beans to the squash mixture provides additional fiber…and the appropriate color combination for Halloween!
–This recipe is easily doubled, making it ideal for casual gatherings with friends….or snacks for little boys and ghouls.

If you’re looking to expand your entertaining repertoire—and have a lot of fun in the process—check out Peggy Fallon’s upcoming class at Draeger’s Cooking School at Blackhawk on Tuesday, October 28, at 6:30 p.m. For more information go to www.draegerscookingschool.com, or call 1-800-642-9463 ext. 261.

The Danville Certified Farmers’ Market, located at Railroad and Prospect, is open every Saturday, rain or shine, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. For specific crop information call the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association at 1-800-949-FARM, or visit their web site at www.pcfma.com. This market is made possible through the generous support of the Town of Danville. Please show your appreciation by patronizing the many fine shops and restaurants located in downtown Danville. Buy fresh. Buy local. Live well.