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PUMPKINS & OTHER SQUASHES : From Jack-Be-Littles to Australian Blues, squashes provide autumn menus with nutrients and color


Among the first vegetables cultivated by American Indians were those called askutasquash or isquoutersquash . Thanks to the pilgrims, however, the word for this vegetable family now is simply squash.

The native American gourd, which originally meant "eaten raw," has become a mainstay on our tables as both an edible menu item and as a table decoration.

This is the proper time of the year to rediscover the hard-shelled, summer-grown crops of the Cucurbita maxima family. In familiar language, they're known as winter squash, so-called because they store well for winter eating. So forget the canned substitutes, get the cleaver and mallet out and enjoy your share of these ever-appealing vegetables.

Blending with the brilliant colors of fall, the squash family includes pumpkins, in various shades of tangerine and now white and blue as well. Pumpkins range in size from a 641-pound mammoth (this year's record holder) to minuscule 3-inch Jack-Be-Littles. Common winter squash varieties include Acorn, Butternut, Hubbard and Buttercup, which come in many shapes, colors and stripings, displaying rugged to smooth exteriors.

For the tough-skinned pumpkin, however, this year's harvest wasn't easy.

"Pumpkins have been hurt due to the rains," said Dimetri Gardikas, a produce distributor in Downey. "The rains damaged some portion of the larger sizes. A good portion of the mini-pumpkins were wiped out while the white pumpkins suffered extensive damage. Adding to the problem, we got more mud in the pumpkins."

On the brighter side, consumers still will find a heap of jack-o'-lantern pumpkins for carving and pie-making because supplies have arrived from out of state.

"The 20 to 30% (local) loss was also offset by a heavier crop this year," Gardikas added. Good news is that pricing is about the same as last year, with a slight half-cent-per-pound increase.

Although the familiar pumpkin remains the unanimous choice for Halloween and fall decorating, its eating quality is not that of its sister winter squashes. "Some (winter squashes) are so sweet that you don't need anything on them," said food consultant and stylist Marlene Brown, who devoted an informative chapter in her new book, "International Produce Cookbook and Guide" (H P Books: $12.95) to squash.

Consumer acceptance of squash improves each year, she said. "New varieties are being introduced, and people are becoming more aware that squashes are packed with nutrients, are high in fiber and are superb sources of Vitamin A--especially the orange-meat squashes." Brown suggests choosing a squash that's hard and solid and heavy for its size.

New, improved hybrids also have inspired the comeback of older favorites. Gardikas said he feels secure handling the popular sellers, such as Butternut, Acorn, Spaghetti squash and sometimes Banana squash. On the other hand, suppliers such as Melissa's Brand (formerly World Variety Produce) and Frieda's Finest expressed growing positive responses with specialty squashes.

One of the newer entries into the winter squash field is the Australian Blue, which Brown said is her current favorite because it's very rich and meaty, with brilliant orange flesh. According to Trudy Hernandez, marketing manager for Melissa's, the bluish-gray shelled squashes, which were once available only in Australia and known as Queensland Blue Pumpkins, are now grown just north of Bakersfield, Calif. Because of their washed-out blue shade, some people are already planning to use them as Southwest-style jack-o'-lanterns or as centerpieces before cooking them.

"These blue squashes were considered a staple in Australia. Because refrigeration of the squash was not necessary even after opening, the blue pumpkins were served at almost every pub Down Under," Hernandez said.

Highly successful members of Melissa's and Frieda's squash lines are two small-size varieties that make excellent one-serving vegetables: the Gold Nugget, a small, round, orange squash of the buttercup type; and Sweet Dumpling, a squat-shaped squash with a cream-colored shell and indented dark green striping.

Another reason why winter squashes are gaining in popularity is that they are all microwaveable, said food consultant Cathi Hofstetter. "They keep their flavor and texture in the microwave," she explained. "It's so convenient and fast this way; it frees up the oven during the holidays and doesn't scare people into thinking that they have to spend so much time preparing squash the stove-top way."

Hofstetter also prefers baby squashes because they cook faster and are tasty plain or stuffed. Of the special varieties, she prefers White Acorn for baking and the long, slender Delicata for its corn-and-sweet-potato flavor.

To vary presentations and to make soup, rice or vegetable casseroles more appealing, a trend (borrowed from the early American Indians) is to use medium- to small-size precooked squashes as serving vessels.

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