Should you need a jack-o'-lantern to brighten your doorstep this Halloween, you will find plenty of North County growers ready to provide you with just the right ones. Besides being used as seasonal decorations however, locally grown pumpkins and squashes can also enliven humdrum fall menus.
Robert and Peggy Torres of the Chestnut Produce Stand in Carlsbad are particularly excited this year about white pumpkins--in all ways similar to a medium-sized jack-o'-lantern, except for their whitish tinge.
"The flesh is bright orange and very thick," said Peggy Torres, adding that they make excellent pies. The unusual white specimens contrast with the bright orange sugar pumpkins next to them. "The sugar pumpkins are smaller than jack-o'-lanterns and they have a thicker flesh, which also makes them excellent for pies," said Torres, who with her husband farms in Carlsbad and Valley Center.
The pink banana squash has a deep-orange flesh and tastes much like the butternut. Robert Torres recommends baking it with a little butter and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
The Chestnut Produce Stand also features decorative miniature Indian ears of corn, and decorative lufa gourds as twisted as rattlesnakes. Around Halloween, the stand creates a "haunted house" for classes of grade-school children. The tours are already booked for this year, but teachers interested in arranging a tour next year should call by the end of next September.
Madeline Maciel of the Maciel Family Farm in Bonsall sells pumpkins, squashes and a variety of seasonal produce at area farmers' markets. Her sister Irene sells flowers from the back of the family truck. At this time of year, bright orange mini-pumpkins, yellow sunbursts, dark green Hubbards and soft, golden Tahitian squash attract scores of regular customers. "The Tahitian is almost as sweet as a yam," said Maciel as she dispensed recipes along with her home-grown produce. "It caramelizes as it cooks."
She also recommends the spaghetti squash: "It's great for people on a diet. Just bake it at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, and then separate the flesh with a fork. It's a delicious substitute for spaghetti."
Howard Jewett, who also likes to experiment with exotic produce, swears by the kabocha, a squash of Japanese origin that looks a little like a large, malformed, acorn squash. "It doesn't look like much, but it's very juicy," he said. "Little beads of juice form as soon as you cut it open. It's succulent when you bake it." The lime-green opo squash, originally from Hawaii, is another of his favorites. The slender zucchini-like vegetable is ideal for grating and stuffing.
"Look at this," said Don Picket, co-owner with Ron Wright of the Berry Patch Stand in Vista, as he breaks in half a yam the color of tangerine sherbet. "You won't find a sweeter yam anywhere." Picket, who has been farming in the county for 25 years, maintains that his yams can be baked and frozen for up to one year. The golden pride variety of yam grows in San Pasqual Valley, and attracts customers from as far as Orange County.
"I sold over 20,000 pounds of yams last year," Picket said proudly. "Many customers buy them by the 50-pound box."
Pumpkins and squashes are very low in calories, and a good source of vitamin A. When buying pumpkins or squashes, avoid pumpkins with cracked shells and squashes with blemishes, or any that feel "mushy" to the touch.
Textures and tastes vary. The small, sweet-tasting acorn squash has slightly fibrous texture and is ideal for stuffing. The banana squash's golden flesh is creamy and sweet, much like the butternut and the Hubbard. The kabocha's dark orange flesh boasts a nuttier flavor.
Medium-sized hollowed-out pumpkins make a dramatic serving-dish for pumpkin soup or home-made stew. To warm the pumpkin shell, scoop out the seeds, pour in boiling water and let stand about 20 minutes. Discard the water, and pour in the soup or stew.
A FEW PUMPKIN PATCHES
Robert and Peggy Torres, Chestnut Produce Stand, on Chestnut Street, a half block west of Highland Avenue, Carlsbad. (619) 729-2361. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., or until sold out. Stand closes October 31. Jack o' lanterns range from $1.50 to $15.00, depending on size; sugar pumpkin, 25 cents a pound; pink banana and white pumpkin, 45 cents a pound; large Indian corn, three ears for $1.00; small Indian corn, 65 cents an ear.
Howard and Iran Jewett, 3062 Sumac Road, Fallbrook, 92028. 723-0845. Will pick on request with a day's notice. Sells at the Vista Farmer's Market. Opo, $1 apiece; butternut, 50 cents a pound; Kabocha, 50 cents apiece.
Maciel Family Farm, 31882 Aqueduct Road, Bonsall, CA 92003. 749-3222. Sells only at area farmers' markets. Mini pumpkins, 50 cents apiece; Tahitian, butternut and spaghetti squash, 40 cents a pound; yellow sunbursts, 5 for $1.
Don Pickett, Berry Patch Produce, 1371 Business Park Road, Vista 92083, just off Palomar Airport Road, across from Carlsbad Raceway. 727-5299. Open daily 8AM to 6PM. Yams are 49 cents a pound, or $15.00 for a 50 pound box.
The Pinery Farms, 3660 Sunset Drive, Escondido. Pumpkin aficionados will find everything from 4-ounce mini-pumpkins to Big Macs weighing up to 50 pounds, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Halloween. 480-8149.
Bates Nut Farm, 15954 Woods Valley Road, Valley Center 92082. Jack-o'-lantern pumpkins ranging from $2 and Big Macs at 15 cents a pound are available daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. through Halloween. 749-3334.