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FARMERS MARKET

Sweet and sweeter

October 04, 2006|Russ Parsons

Just in

Winter squash: Never mind the name, these sweet, nutty squash are harvested in the fall. They are called "winter" because their hard shells allow them to be stored for extended periods, and in the days before refrigeration, that was a quality more worth honoring than mere harvest seasonality. The earliest winter squash are just beginning to trickle into the market -- kabocha, butternut and acorn mostly. Right now they are still fairly small and most will be a little short on flavor. But within the next week or two that will change, particularly for squash such as butternut and kabocha. These benefit from a couple of weeks of "curing" after being harvested, which allows time for enzymes to convert some of their starch into sugar. Acorns are from another family and do not require curing. They're better bets this early in the season. When choosing squash, look for hard, corky stems and deep, vibrant color. Many squash will show pale spots where they rested on the ground, just like some melons do. Squash can be prepared in different ways, depending on what kind of flavor and texture you want. Cut them in half and roast them (about an hour at 400 degrees) and they are caramelized, sweet and creamy. Or cube them and steam them (about 20 minutes) and they'll be milder and more squash-like with a texture that is moist and slightly grainy.

Various vendors, $1 to $1.50 per pound.

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Peak season

Bartlett pears: This has been a tough season for California pear growers. After years of struggling financially and weird weather this spring, it looked like they had hit the jackpot with a bountiful harvest on hand. Initial forecasts were for a 17% increase in crop size over last year. And then the realities of the new labor market hit. Short of pickers, growers in prime growing areas of Mendocino and Lake counties now say they had to leave as much as 30% of the fruit on the trees. While hanging longer to ripen is good news for most fruit, pears need to be picked within a very limited period of time; they are one of the few fruits that must be picked underripe and then ripened off the tree. Lignin, a substance that in the right amount gives the fruit its pleasantly grainy texture, turns woody when left to hang too long. If there is any good news to be rescued from this sorry situation, it is that only the very best fruit was picked. The best perfectly ripened Bartlett pears will be golden and fragrant and will have a slight softness at the neck. If your fruit is green, just set it on the table for a couple of days and it will ripen. Don't worry if the fruit shows some russet spots -- they're only skin-deep and won't affect the flavor.

Various vendors, $2 per pound.

Russ Parsons

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russ.parsons@latimes.com

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