By Cheryl Angelina Koehler
Illustration by Helen Krayenhoff
Should you find yourself blessed with a specimen of this uniquely beautiful winter squash, you might do exactly as I did and place it on the kitchen table to admire for several weeks. Then you might give it to an artist friend to paint. And sometime later, when it has cured to a rich chestnut color, you might finally eat it. My black futsu, as illustrated above by Helen Krayenhoff, was one of several mysterious heirloom Cucurbitaceae maxima brought back from a September visit to Baia Nicchia, a 9.-acre farm in the Sunol Agricultural Park. The head of this farm is Fred Hempel, a geneticist best known for his tomato-breeding program. Fred has something of the mad scientist about him, and he seems to have created a vortex into which an assortment of inspired growers, seed-savers, and chefs have fallen, captured by a shared fascination with the multifaceted aspects of nature.
As with all scientists, Fred is a consummate experimenter. Throughout the long Sunolian summer, he was picking samples of immature winter squash and sending them off with his chef friends for their culinary inventions. They found that some work perfectly well as substitutes for summer squash, and even offer new and interesting flavors and textures.
First lured in by Fred’s tomatoes (and charmed by his hands-on way of doing business), Anthony Paone, the executive chef at [now closed] Sea Salt Restaurant in Berkeley, has been a willing conspirator in the squash experiments, and has created many dishes with “potimarron jeune,” which is what Fred calls the early-picked fruits of the French heirloom squash with a name that’s a squashed-together concoction of two French words, potiron (pumpkin) and marron (chestnut). As a chef working with “sustainable” seafood—a concept that ebbs and flows with each new report from the various organizations that monitor sealife—Anthony seemed merely amused by the notion of substituting immature winter squash for summer squash. He also saw no reason to confuse diners enjoying his delicious Fregola with Butternut Squash, Hazelnuts, and Brown Butter Vinaigrette by informing them that the butternut is actually Fred’s heirloom “butternut rugosa” variety . . . unless, or course, they want to know. The more important point is that the squash has been prepared by a chef whose Italian mother taught him to appreciate good, fresh produce.
The following recipes all call for squash varieties that Edible East Bay readers are going to be hard pressed to find at any market, but Anthony says to just go ahead and substitute kabocha or any other winter squash you find, taking courage—as our best local chefs always do—in the belief that whatever you prepare with love in your kitchen will be hugely adored by your friends and family.
Also, keep in mind that these are vegetables you might try growing yourself in next summer’s vegetable garden. Seeds for black futsu and butternut rugosa can be ordered from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (rareseeds.com) and potimarron seeds are available through Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org). Plant starts for these unique varieties might be available from local growers who are riding the top of the interest in heirloom vegetables. Check with Kassenhoff Growers or watch to see what they bring to the farmers market in the spring.