Hubba Hubba

Autumn officially arrived last Saturday at 9:54 PM. For me, that means goodbye zucchini, hello Hubbard. I’m talking winter squash, those uniquely shaped and textured cucurbits that have already begun to appear at Central Farm Markets.

In my youth, winter squash were merely decorations that sat on the front porch stacked around corn stalks, the big orange pumpkins carved with triangle eyes and a toothy grins lit with a votive candle. This tradition continues today with house-proud holiday decorators going out of their way to procure the largest variety of what look more like alien pods.

Humans have been growing and breeding squash for over 8,000 years. “You have a huge demand for squash and gourds that are aesthetically interesting and different from each other. That’s been popular for a while, and it’s been really trendy the last few years,” explained Adam Pyle, a horticulturist at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. in an interview with NPR.

Eating winter squash other than in dessert was a foreign concept to me. Grandma’s ingredients for pie came out of a can. It wasn’t until one of the vendors at my local farmers market when I was in college was handing out slivers of brilliant orange flesh cut our of what looked like a fifty-pound green-skinned hollow cucumber. Hesitantly, I took a piece and was instantly converted by the sweet, firm fruit (yes, squash are fruit). Each week I would purchase a large chunk as it was inexpensive, perfect for a student budget. I learned to cook winter squash every imaginable way—baked, sautéed, grilled, pureed in soups, raw in salads. Wanting to grow it for myself, I asked the farmer if I could have some of his seeds as my purchases never contained any.

“No way, this is my squash. It took me over ten years to come up with this,” he replied. Miffed by his rebuff, I never bought his squash again and instead, sought out other unusual varieties, though none ever came close to the flavor and size of his.

After I had begun farming, a neighbor asked if I’d haul away her fall decorations to feed to my animals. She had a full pick-up load of every imaginable color, shape and size of squash, gourd and pumpkin. There was even a giant pumpkin which required the use of a wooden pallet and forklift to load on the truck. While most of the bounty went to the livestock, some I took slices from several to see how they would cook up and taste. The bluish-green Hubbard was my favorite out of all. Some had warty skins so thick I had to use an ax to cut into them!

The best part, though, was watching as the animals rolled them down the hill running in hopes of getting a bite one they broke open. The old red mare became the barnyard hero after she discovered if she stomped on the squash the succulent flesh was exposed. The pigs crawled inside the giant pumpkin through a hole they chewed open, eating it from the inside out. Everyone ate themselves silly and the following year squash grew throughout the pastures, many making it to maturity before the residents broke into them.

Winter squash, especially Hubbards, have become a staple of my fall and winter meals. Their size, versatility in preparation along with their storage capacity—up to a year in a cool, dry place—means there are always one or two along with other interesting varieties such as butternut (aka: neck pumpkins), Cinderella and Spaghetti squashes.

One of my favorite ways to prepare squash is to cube up the flesh and place in a container along with other sliced/cubed fall vegetables such as beets, carrots, and parsnips, add olive oil, crushed garlic, rosemary and fresh cracked pepper. Shake until the vegetables are thoroughly coated in oil and then spread on a baking sheet and place in a 375-degree oven until the roasted soft and caramelized. Got leftovers? Put in a blender along with a few cups of broth for instant soup. Add a little curry powder and a dollop of Greek yogurt for an international flair.

And yes, just about all varieties of winter squashes can be used to make pie.

Here are some tips for choosing and storing winter squash.

  • Winter squash are prone to decay. Examine the entire squash for any soft spots or signs of mold if you plan to store them for any length of time.
  • Choose squash that are heavy for their size and have dull rinds. The rinds should be firm. The heavier they are, the moister and tastier they are.
  • Winter squashes can be stored in a dark, cool, well-ventilated space for six months. Varieties with very thick, warty rinds will last for a year.
  • Cut squash can be wrapped and refrigerated for several days.
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It’s Not Too Early

A few weeks ago, I saw an exasperated lament on social media about a notice to order Thanksgiving turkeys. “It’s September,” she posted. And I knew immediately this was a topic for Dishing the Dirt to tackle.

Yes, if you want a locally raised holiday bird, reserve it now. But it’s only September you say. We’ve become an on-demand culture believing that everything can be ordered online and overnighted to our doorsteps. While most customers who shop at farmers markets get the concept of seasonality, there are those who fall short on understanding availability.

Let’s talk turkey.

If you are purchasing your Thanksgiving turkey from the farmers market, it’s coming from a diversified farm, meaning multiple species are raised by the farmers. Their flocks number in the hundreds, not thousands of birds as is with commercial growers meaning there is a limited number, often first come, first serve. Farmers with smaller flocks may require a reservation – even a deposit – in the spring when ordering poults (baby turkeys) since the young chicks can be costly – up to $15 per poult for some of the rarer Heritage breeds. This is a significant investment considering how quickly a flock of holiday dinners can be decimated by bad weather and predation.

I mentioned Heritage breeds. These are the much sought-after varieties that have not had their physical traits tinkered with through selective breeding to create a fast-growing, big-breasted snow-white bird known as the Broad Breasted White. These birds, along with their cousins, the Broad Breasted Bronze, are the de facto standard in commercial turkey production. They have been bred for generations to produce extra-large breasts for lots of white meat which has also led to their inability to fly. This is why many pastured poultry farmers have shifted their production flocks to these two varieties.

Although I no longer raise turkeys, for years I raised a small flock of Heritage birds – Bourbon Reds, Standard Bronze and Blue Slates. They were lovely birds, but I grew tired of clipping wings and explaining to customers why their Thanksgiving turkey had small breasts and lots of dark meat. One year I failed to clip their wings in time and returned home from a Friday night market after dark to find all 75 turkeys perched on top of the fence rail. They had free range not only of the farm, but of the entire neighborhood which did not bode well for my residential neighbors. After that I switched to Broad Breasted Bronze which still produced excellent flavor and texture on pasture without too rapid of growth, they looked pretty and most importantly, they did not fly.

Unlike chickens, turkeys are very seasonal in their egg production. Heritage breed hens will lay only two to three eggs a week starting in early spring going through June. Because the Broad Breasted hens are unable to mate naturally (those big breasts get in the way), they must be artificially inseminated. This intensive husbandry allows for practically year-round access to poults from production breeds.

The slow-growing Heritage breed turkeys require 25-32 weeks of growth to be ready for Thanksgiving harvest. That means starting poults in April as opposed to the Broad Breasted varieties that can reach harvest weight in half that time. The difference in growth rates is also why customers are most likely to have sticker shock when choosing a Heritage breed turkey. Twice the amount of time to grow means twice the amount of feed. Turkeys also require feed which is significantly higher in protein than chicken feed – read: more expensive.

Now it’s half way through September and the farmers can see the back stretch, a sprint to Thanksgiving. From now until November, these birds will consume a fearsome amount of food and water, requiring daily attention. By the middle of October farmers hope to have reservations for the majority of their birds as they begin chanting a daily count-down to the week prior to Thanksgiving which is a Herculean task of labor and logistics.

There’s always that person who shows up at the last-minute wanting the biggest or the smallest bird. Sorry, those went to the shoppers who called back in September and reserved what they wanted.

Turkeys, fresh or frozen are not exactly easy to pack in coolers for storage or transport so when the farmers can get a fairly accurate estimate as to how many birds to bring, it makes their lives so much easier. Trust me, no farmer wants to back-haul fresh turkeys. Even worse, leftover fresh turkeys are a pain in the cloaca to freeze. Think about stacking large bowling balls in a freezer.

So, if you are planning on serving a fresh turkey from your favorite farmer this year for Thanksgiving, talk to them in the coming weeks and make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier.

Florence & The Farm Markets

Before there were iPhones with news and weather apps, there was my dad who was always clicking between The Weather Channel, The History Channel and Fox News. On days he knew I was at market, he’d pay particularly close attention to the weather. Occasionally I would get a telephone call warning me of a fast-moving storm in my direction, him going so far as to tell me once to pack up and get out of there NOW. Other times when the sky would turn black, I’d call him for an update to see which way the storm was tracking.

Now there are multiple weather reporting outlets who rely on experienced forecasters, super computers and satellite images that can be called up on demand, but predicting the weather is still a crap shoot. Any farmer will tell you that with no uncertainty. Trust me, we are all glued to our weather apps right now, especially farmers in Virginia.

Customers have already begun asking, “Will there be markets this weekend?” The answer: we don’t know…yet.

We know there won’t be markets the weekend after Thanksgiving and there won’t be a Bethesda market on October 14th due to the Bethesda Row Fine Arts Festival, but to say with any certainty in advance about weather-related cancellations is about as predictable as the weather itself.

“We intend to stay open rain or shine,” says Mitch Berliner, founder of Central Farm Markets.

However, due to the agreement with Montgomery County for the Bethesda location, the market must close if the county closes the school for weekend activities due to a weather event like a major snow storm or a direct hit from a hurricane. Similarly, the other locations (Pike, Westfield and Mosaic) will cancel markets only when weather conditions such as ice becomes dangerous to patrons and vendors.

Ice won’t be an issue this weekend, but the remnants of Florence, depending on where it makes landfall, may result in conditions – high winds and rain – that necessitate closures. Sure, vendors go without tents on breezy days, but tent weights only work so well before either the frame collapses from the sustained stress or a strong gust whips the entire structure into the air (weights included) and plunks it down on shoppers, on vehicles, on other vendors’ tents. Over the years I’ve witnessed several tent wrecks due to high winds. In an instant there were injured people, broken windshields, damaged products and destroyed tents.

If there is rain coupled with extremely high winds, that’s when it makes sense to pull the plug. According to the Capital Weather Gang, “based on the best available computer model forecasts, the storm’s extreme rainfall is likely to remain south of Washington.” That does not mean the region will not experience the effects of Florence as their forecast added, “There is still some chance that the region will endure disruptive rain and wind from the storm.”

Chances…

Some vendors travel over two hours to and from Central Farm Markets. That means that the producers traveling from the south are much more likely to be impacted by Hurricane Florence. Westmoreland Produce, located in Virginia between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers has chosen to err on the side of caution and will not be attending markets this weekend. Other vendors located closer to the estimated path of the hurricane are weighing their options as well. It’s not that vendors want to skip a market due to inclement weather. After all, we must work in all types of conditions to get the food to our customers.

Experience has taught us that picking and loading during dangerous storms is an unwise choice, that even though we are loaded and rolling flooded roads, downed trees and power lines can thwart our efforts. With supersaturated ground from all the recent rains, a blast of high winds can quickly bring down trees and poles. When state governors and the District mayor all declare states of emergency ahead of a major storm, we give pause and consider our trek into the city.

Other times we take a chance on an ugly forecast, standing for hours in the first bone-chilling rain of the season such as last week and are rewarded with patrons showing up in full support and colorful rain gear.

Yes, this still doesn’t answer the question will there be markets this weekend.

“We will wait until Friday IF we are to call off the markets, but at this point we intend to go forward,” says Mitch Berliner.

Here’s how you can stay on top of how Hurricane Florence will impact all the Central Farm Markets.

Another New Year

One of the things I love the most about the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of urban farmers markets is the multitude of New Year celebrations. And you know what that means – feasting! It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you believe, food is central to practically every holiday. After many seasons of selling at farmers markets, I’m starting to get the hang of all the holidays enough to plan on the special requests for foods associated with each one, my lessons far better (and flavorful) than any college cultural geography course.

While the global population bases day-to-day living with the Gregorian calendar, many of the cultural and religious holidays follow lunar calendars leading to multiple “new year” celebrations that occur on dates other than January 1st.

I start out by wishing customers a happy new year on the first day of January. In my tribe, we opt for pork and sauerkraut for good luck. Approximately a month later, my Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean customers following their lunisolar calendar prepare for spring celebrations, aka Chinese New Year for which I have been on the receiving end of awesome pork dumplings.

I learned about the Mongolian New Year when customers special ordered a sheep’s head and stomach along with assorted offal a few weeks ahead of their celebration. Their new year occurs on the first day of the traditional Mongolian lunisolar calendar which denotes the new year as the new moon two months after the winter solstice. They were kind enough to bring me a small container of leftovers to taste. It was quite good, but the neighbors’ at their condo didn’t appreciate the aroma which was quite different from American norms.

In March, the Persian New Year brings a new set of flavors – dolmeh – which are grape leaves filled with ground lamb and ethereally sweet baklava, another tradition to which I look forward.

Rolling into September, the requests for brisket begin which means Rosh Hashana is on the horizon. My self-appointed Bubbe has educated me on the culinary points of Judaism over the years, leading me to grow a large patch of horseradish for Passover and package individual shanks for the Seder plate.

Several years ago, a young man asked for a ram’s horn to make his own shofar. I had to explain that the breed of sheep I raise don’t have horns. As disappointed as he was, maybe I should have substituted a goat horn, of which I have plenty.

Digging into the history of Rosh Hashana, again I have found another celebration deeply rooted in agriculture. In the modern world, we tend to forget how many traditions have emerged from 5779 years of agrarian cycles. This is when new fruits, such as apples and pomegranates are coming into season, and honey is plentiful.

Also observed at the new moon this month is the Islamic New Year. Raʼs al-Sanah is a low-key event after Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha that is more of a cultural celebration that includes traditional meals based upon seasonal ingredients.

After this month, there’s still one more New Year to celebrate – Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights which celebrates new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. It is also when goat meat is traditionally served. That’s a new year to which I can totally relate.

My customers at Central Farm Markets sometimes ask which holidays I celebrate. As a farmer who feeds people from all walks of life, I gleefully smile and tell them I celebrate them all.