A cloud of dust engulfed Frank Perry’s pickup as it rumbled along the dirt road next to a field of winter squash. The truck skidded to a stop and, with a loud, complaining groan, the door announced Perry’s arrival at the produce stand on the edge of the farm.
Perry, a second-generation farmer, is instantly likable. He greets every customer as he would an old friend: Big handshake. Enthusiastic welcome. He evenly dispenses suggestions, cooking advice and weather predictions.
“This is my favorite spot,” he says, leaning an elbow on the counter next to the cash register. From his post, he watches shoppers drive up to the stand, then helps them carry sacks of squash, pumpkins, corn and peppers to their cars. Everyone seems to recognize him. How could they not? Bushy gray beard, plaid shirt, boots crusted with dried mud, dusty baseball cap, probably worn daily since 1990, which is the date on the brim. “For me, there’s nothing better than a customer who stops by and says, ‘That melon we bought was wonderful.’ That keeps me going.”
Perry’s father, Jack Perry, was a Portuguese immigrant. He began farming along Garden Highway near the Sacramento River during the Great Depression. We know this area now as Natomas. Jack and his wife, Luceile, had five children, including Frank and three of his brothers who, together, now run the farm. Jack Perry farmed the area until he passed away at age 98 in 2003.
Frank Perry, 71, is a disabled Vietnam veteran and a cancer survivor, neither of which has slowed him down. His days begin around 4:30 a.m. and end when the produce stand closes around 6 p.m. “Seven days a week,” he says. Besides the produce stand, the farm, known as Perry’s Garden Hwy Gardens, also sells produce at several California Certified Farmers Markets, including the Saturday market at Country Club Plaza in Sacramento and the Sunday market in the state parking lot under the freeway at W and Eighth streets in Sacramento.
The farm encompasses 600 acres stretching from El Centro Road to Garden Highway. Perry points toward the Natomas housing development, which begins across the road from the farm. “That used to be farmland, too,” he said. “Now the people who live there are some of our best customers.”
Perry and his brothers grow a variety of produce, including several types of melons, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, beets, sunflowers, soy beans. Closer to the river, they have groves of fruit trees. In the fall they switch over to winter squash, planting 13 varieties.
“By far, the most popular is butternut,” said Perry. “We also grow acorn squash, Sweet Mama, Japanese pumpkins and a bunch of others. We begin the harvest late September and it lasts until February or March, depending on the weather.”
One of the highlights of fall, according to Perry, is a pumpkin patch and a corn maze behind the produce stand. “We also have hay rides all through the fall,” he says. “The kids get a big kick out of it.”
When we visited in September, the winter squash was just beginning to bloom. “It’s beautiful. Want to go see the field? My truck is kind of dirty, but we could take your car,” he said, pointing toward my shiny red coupe with champagne interior. I opted for the truck. “Kind of dirty” didn’t come close to his description. He could grow crops on the dashboard. What fun we had as we bounced and rumbled along the farm road, leaving a big cloud of dust in our wake. Perry pointed out the corn maze, the pumpkin patch and drying sunflowers. Off in the distance there were dozens of white boxes filled with beehives. “I have a trade-out with some beekeepers,” he said. “I let them keep their hives on the property and in turn their bees pollinate our crops. It works out great for all of us.”
He and his brothers do most of the farming, but they do have about 40 seasonal workers. Perry is proud that many of them have been working at the farm for decades and even through generations of families. He waves and shouts greetings as we pass by. He seems to know everyone’s name and even pauses to ask about kids and elders.
When asked if there is much money made from farming, Perry laughed. “That’s not why we keep going,” he said. “It’s other rewards like happy customers, being outdoors, working hard. I like to say I’ll keep farming until I go broke.”
You can find Perry’s Garden Hwy Gardens and produce stand at 3101 El Centro Road, Sacramento. For more information, including what’s in season, call (916) 929-7546.
FACTS ABOUT WINTER SQUASH
Unlike summer squash with thin, edible skins, winter squash have hard, thick shells and require longer cooking. There are many varieties to choose from. Most have a slightly sweet and nutty flavor. They need no refrigeration, but for longer storage keep them in a cool, dry place. They can be roasted, baked, steamed or cooked in a microwave oven. Most are interchangeable in recipes. These are a few of the most popular varieties:
▪ Turban – This squash looks like a beautiful turban, thus the name. You will find them with orange, green and white stripes. They make beautiful table decorations through the fall season. Turban is extremely hard so try poking a few holes in the skin, then baking it until it softens.
▪ Delicata – This oblong squash is very pretty with creamy yellow colored skin and lengthwise stripes. The flavor is mellow and slightly buttery. Try cutting it into rings, brushing it lightly with olive oil and roasting it in the oven until tender.
▪ Sweet Mama – Don’t be fooled by the green, warty exterior. Inside it’s sweet and smooth, similar to an acorn squash. When mature, one squash weighs about 3 pounds.
▪ Spaghetti – This is a large, yellow, oval-shaped squash about the size of a soccer ball. It can be baked whole if you pierce the outside with a fork several times. Bake for about an hour at 375 degrees. When cool enough to handle, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds. Remove the spaghettilike strands by scraping with a fork. Many people serve it with pasta sauce.
▪ Acorn – You will find white, green, orange and gray squash. All have the same flavor inside. They are shaped like a large acorn with deep scallops in the shell. The white variety is cream-color inside. Others are orange. You might find small acorn squash labeled as Honey Bear.
▪ Banana – In grocery stores you often find pieces of banana squash. The reason is that the whole squash is enormous – sometimes 2 to 3 feet long. The skin is pink, but occasionally you will find them with blue skin. Inside the flesh is bright pumpkin orange. They are wonderful when roasted and glazed with honey. Bake slices until tender and about 5 minutes before removing them from the oven, brush with a mixture of honey and lemon juice.
▪ Butternut – Farmer Frank Perry says butternut is by far the most popular winter squash. This is a tall bell-shaped squash with tan skin and orange flesh. It is a favorite for making winter soup. The flavor pairs beautifully with apples. It’s also a nice addition to risotto.
Source: Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento
Roasted winter squash soup
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 2 hours
Nothing is more satisfying on a cold winter day than a big bowl of steaming vegetable soup. This recipe takes a long time to get the flavors blended perfectly, but it’s worth the effort. Add some crusty bread to dip into the soup and you’ve got a wonderful meal. This recipe is from “U.S.A. Cookbook,” by Sheila Lukins (Workman Publishing New York, 605 pages, $19.95).
2 butternut squash, about 2 pounds each
4 carrots, peeled
1⁄2 pound parsnips, peeled
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1⁄4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1⁄4 cup unsalted butter
9 cups chicken broth
1⁄2 teaspoon ground mace
2 teaspoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
1⁄2 cup toasted pine nuts for garnish
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cut the squash lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place the squash cut-side-up in a large roasting pan. Cut the carrots and parsnips into small pieces and scatter them, along with the onion, around the squash. Sprinkle the cut surfaces of the squash with the brown sugar and dot all over with the butter. Pour 21⁄2 cups of the broth into the pan and cover it tightly with aluminum foil. Bake until all the vegetables are very soft, about 2 hours.
Carefully remove the foil and let the vegetables cool slightly. Scoop the squash out of the skins and place it in a heavy soup pot. Add the other vegetables and the remaining 61⁄2 cups of broth. Season with the mace, crystallized ginger, cayenne and salt. Stir together and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 10 minutes for the flavors to combine.
Puree the soup in batches, in a blender or food processor until it is very smooth. Return the soup to the pot and add extra broth if necessary to thin it to the desired consistency. Heat it through. Serve the soup in large shallow soup bowls, garnished with pine nuts and parsley.
Stuffed acorn squash
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Chef Alton Brown, of Food Network, created this one-dish meal by stuffing acorn squash with pork and rice.
4 small acorn squash, abut 11⁄4 pounds each
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1⁄2 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon olive oil
1⁄4 cup chopped onion
1⁄4 cup chopped celery
1⁄4 cup chopped, peeled carrot
1⁄2 cup white wine
1 1⁄2 cups cooked rice
One 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed, drained and chopped
1⁄2 cup toasted pine nuts
1 1⁄2 teaspoons dried oregano
Pinch kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut 1 inch off the top of each acorn squash and scoop out the seeds. If necessary in order for the squash to sit upright, cut off a small portion of the bottom. Put 1 of the 4 pieces of butter in the cavity of each squash. Set squash on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Set aside.
In a large sauté pan over medium heat, brown the ground pork until no longer pink. Remove the meat from the pan, add the olive oil and sauté the onion, celery and carrot until they begin to soften, approximately 7 to 10 minutes. Add the wine to the pan and heat it while stirring to loosen bits of meat and onion left in the pan.
Return the pork to the pan along with the cooked rice, spinach, pine nuts and oregano. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stirring constantly, heat the mixture thoroughly, approximately 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. Divide the mixture evenly among the squash. Top each squash with its lid and bake for 1 hour or until the squash is tender. Serve immediately.