Time for heirloom squash and gourds

Grilled butternut squash with chili peppers and mint is a nice transitional dish.
Grilled butternut squash with chili peppers and mint is a nice transitional dish. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Ready or not, it’s the season for squash.

Sure, we can wait until a stretch of proper fall weather to buy them. But after I visited Tom Culton’s farm in Lancaster County about a month ago, I’d like to go back and stock up for the cold months.

Culton of Culton Organics produces some truly memorable fruits and vegetables: The kind that are so delicious, he could start a cult. A 10th-generation farmer, Culton farms with his grandfather Pete Herchelroth, who even in his 80s still tends to their 53 acres every day.

Culton, 35, supplies fruits and vegetables to a handful of restaurateurs such as Marc Vetri (who has restaurants in Philadelphia) and Daniel Boulud (who has restaurants in New York City and Washington, D.C., among other cities), and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio of “Top Chef” (who owns restaurants in New York City and Las Vegas).

When I walked through the fields in August, Culton picked up a vert grimpant, a melon the size of a cantaloupe, dappled with yellow and green, and he broke it open on the ground. It was the most amazing melon I’ve ever eaten, with a pale, soft, sweet flesh.

A friend and I drove back to Pittsburgh with a carload of them, the most intensely floral and sensual my little Honda will ever smell.

A few years ago, Culton grew a squash that weighed 70 pounds, which he took with him when he was a guest on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” He appeared on the show because of his rock-star farmer status.

The size wasn’t so unusual – for the squash, anyway. The Long of Naples varietal grows on average up to 25 pounds. This one had grown so large, he said, because all the flowers but one had been knocked off the vine, so the one left produced an outsized gourd.

The Long of Naples is one of dozens of heirloom plants Culton grows, along with many varieties of tomatoes, cardoons, garlic, globe artichokes, asparagus and more than 200 varieties of peppers – including the coveted Espelette.

His squash come in all shapes and sizes. He’s growing the Musquee de Provence with a mottled rind so beautiful that it could be featured in a still life. Then there’s the pink banana squash that looks like the name. It’s among his favorite because it is so flavorful.

“I really, really love it,” he said. “I don’t have to do much to them as far as the growing season. And they'll hold for two to six months.”

Culton’s fruits and vegetables are highly coveted, although they can be expensive at $4 each for melons, and ranging from 80 cents to $1.50 a pound for squash.

But that’s the thing about these heirloom varieties grown by farmers who really know what they’re doing. They’re fun to hunt down to use when preparing that extraordinary meal.

Farmers closer to home offer some really nice Blue Hubbard squash or kabochas that you can get through Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, or at the farmers markets.

Squash can last a long time, especially if you store them in an unheated garage that hovers above 40 degrees. Keep them out of direct sunlight, Culton said.

Once you cut into a large squash, it will keep. He suggests wrapping it in plastic and storing it in the refrigerator, which can preserve it for close to a month.

Because squash becomes ubiquitous in mid- to late fall, I like to vary preparations. I wish restaurants would do it more often, too, and go beyond butternut squash soup and ravioli.

I'll take a fried squash triangle anytime, served as a snack or dessert. I’m also in love with pasta con zucca – cubed, braised squash cooked so long and slow that it melds into a sauce of sorts, coating short noodles such as pasta mista or mezze maniche.

A friend introduced me to a grilled version of squash that is very simple. Cut a kabocha in half-moons about a half-inch thick. Lightly oil the pieces with olive oil, then transfer them to the grates.

When the slices are cooked through, drop them in a large bowl with a minced chili – be it a Thai bird, Calabrian or even a cherry pepper. Drizzle with good olive oil and a dash of white wine vinegar. Let it sit for a bit, but not too long. Garnish with mint and serve.

It’s the dish that steals the show.

Pasta con zucca

This is an easy recipe, but it requires patience. Don’t add too much liquid at a time, and allow the liquid to thicken before serving.

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 whole clove of garlic

2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cubed

2 cups pasta mista or mezze maniche

4 cups water

Several sprigs of Italian parsley, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a large sauté pan on medium-high. When it’s hot, add olive oil and add the whole clove of garlic. Turn it down to medium and allow the clove to season the oil.

After 2 or 3 minutes, remove the clove. Add cubed squash. Turn heat down to a simmer and cover. Check often to ensure the pan still has liquid in it. Add olive oil as needed and stir the squash so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan or brown for about 20 minutes.

When squash has cooked through and soft, add 2 cups of pasta, a sprinkle of sea salt and turn up the heat to medium high. Add enough water so that pasta and squash are covered by liquid. Stir periodically.

The goal here is to cook the pasta to al dente (and not to overcook it). A second goal is to allow the starch from the pasta and squash to bind to make a sauce.

If there is too much liquid in the pan, the sauce won’t thicken. If there’s not enough, the pasta won’t cook evenly. So be judicious in adding liquid.

As the pasta cooks, stir more frequently. The liquid will start to thicken. After pasta is cooked, transfer to a serving plate, add black pepper and garnish with chopped Italian parsley or grated Parmesan if desired.

Serves 2

Grilled squash

1  1/2 cups squash, peeled and cut in wedges

1/8 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

White wine vinegar

1 Thai bird or Calabrian chili, or one cherry pepper, seeded and chopped

10 mint leaves, cut in a chiffonade

Light the grill and allow it to get hot.

After you have peeled the squash, cut it in 1/2 wedges or half moons. Be sure they’re not too thin so they don’t fall apart on the grill. Then pour a quarter-size dollop of olive oil in the bottom of a large bowl. Transfer wedges to the bowl and coat them with a light sheen of olive oil.

Grill the squash for somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes, turning once as needed.

When the slices are cooked through, transfer them back to the bowl and salt liberally – be sure to taste as you go. Add a touch more olive oil and a dash of white wine vinegar. Then add pepper, mint and black pepper, if you like. Let sit for a few minutes before serving.

Serves 2