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AT THE MARKET / CHILACALLOTA

After-Dinner Treat : A popular Mexican candy is easily made from chunks of this watermelon-size squash.

March 11, 1993|RODNEY BOSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out on California 126, past Fillmore when heading east, a bustling clientele is pulling off to the side of the highway to procure some of the plentiful offerings at Cornejo's Produce stand.

The customers have come for an impressive variety of citrus, Hass avocados and dried chili peppers, which are bought up at a brisk pace in the shade of the stand's thatched rooftop.

Not all of what Manuel Cornejo offers at his popular roadside stand would be considered staple produce items here in Ventura County. A farmer by trade, Cornejo sometimes experiments with seasonal varieties that are more common to his native Mexico.

Example: Off to the left of the stand sits a large wooden bin, filled with what appear to be volleyball-size watermelons. The greenish-white fruit doesn't command much attention from customers, however, who take a dusty walk past the bin from their cars to the shaded area of the stand.

Perhaps if the bin were labeled "watermelons," it might coax more folks to pick up one of the weighty fruits. Instead, there is a small paper placard that reads in hand-scrawled lettering, "Chilacallota."

"Not too many people buy them," Cornejo said. "I don't think most people know what it is."

"It" is a vine-grown plant and a member of the squash family. While not familiar to these parts, chilacallota (also spelled chilacayote) is common to Mexico and Central America, Cornejo said. In Mexico, the meaty, fibrous flesh provides the makings for a popular candy--commonly known as dulces de mesa (table candies)--which often are served as a sweet complement after meals, he said.

Preparing dulces de mesa is easy enough to try at home. Preparation calls for boiling the flesh and lots of sugar.

"Traditionally in Mexico we prepare it by cutting it in small pieces after peeling and throwing away the seeds," said Francisco Michel, produce manager at La Gloria Market in Oxnard, which also sells fresh chilacallota. Slicing through the hard, shell-like skin is no easy task. But once halved, an inviting sight is exposed. The creamy-colored flesh is accented with large, dark brown seeds, and is reminiscent of a huge bowl of chocolate chunk vanilla ice cream.

Michel explained an easy way to prepare the candy:

The first step is to quarter the squash lengthwise and remove the tough skin from the flesh. You'll need a sharp knife. Once skinned, slice the flesh in about 4-by-2-inch pieces. Though the seeds are sometimes numerous, they are easily removed.

Now, scratch or score the pieces with a fork. This enables the flesh to absorb the sugar more readily.

Fill a large pot halfway with water. Boil. Pour in a cup of white sugar and a cup of brown sugar. Toss in the chilacallota pieces and simmer, stirring occasionally.

Testing with a fork or toothpick, simmer until the chilacallota chunks are uniformly soft throughout. Remove from heat and drain off any excess water.

Pour the chunks onto a tray and let stand until cool.

The pieces will congeal, Michel said, but will remain tender. When ready to serve, you can slice off the desired amount.

The finished product will range in color from a milky white to beige or caramel color. The flavor is obviously sweet with a soft, creamy texture.

"You eat it in bite-sized pieces," Michel said. "It is served as a traditional Mexican garnish."

A typical setting would be to serve with enchiladas, sopa de arroz (rice soup), salad, beans and milk. "The candy served on the plate would be the dessert," Michel said.

"If you don't want to make it yourself," Cornejo said, "I have it here at my stand, which I purchase from an L. A. market."

The fresh version goes for about 29 cents a pound.

Robyn Loewenthal contributed to this story.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* Cornejo's Produce, California 126, Fillmore. Hours: Daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. Call 524-3743.

* La Gloria Market, 430 S. Oxnard Blvd., Oxnard. Hours: Daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call 486-8735.

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