On a light-drenched afternoon back in October, the pumpkin patch at Organic Matters Ranch on Myrtle Avenue was thickly dotted with pumpkins of various shades of orange and some green Marina di Chioggia squashes, too. Chickens dressed in lustrous feathers tasted pumpkin in front of their coop. Two shiny black pigs enjoyed the sunny weather. Adults and children celebrated the yearly ritual of selecting pumpkins that later, at home, would be carved or cooked.
As a child back in Italy, I didn't think there was anything special about buying fruit and vegetables directly from the growers, or about going to their house to do so. I was focused on the tomatoes, figs or strawberries I might pick by myself, or a coop where I could look for a freshly laid egg. Nowadays, when I arrive at a farm, I am more conscious of entering the farmer's home, especially the first time, since it establishes a kind of familiarity.
At the farmers market, customers get to know the farmers: their faces, their names, where their farms are. The time for conversation, however, is limited; the customer has other stalls to visit and the farmer other customers to attend to. A visit to the farm provides a bit more leisure and brings consumers a step closer to producers.
It also gives a measure of reality to whatever image of agrarian Arcadia one may have: You may not actually see the farmer at work, but you still see what the business of growing food entails. Outside fairy tales, pumpkins don't grow by themselves in neat rows. The chickens running around their burgundy coop — 250 layers — need feeding and care, and so do the pigs that looked at me with curiosity. After chatting with married owners Heather Plaza and John Gary, I took in the fraction of the ranch where we stood. I tried to imagine the effort required to fit all the farm tasks into 24 hours and still get enough time for sleep, meals, family and all the not-on-the-farm activities that are necessary to run a farm-based business. I'll remember that when I see them and the other producers at the winter farmers market on the plaza and the farm stands that will open again in the spring.
During my visit, I picked a Marina di Chioggia squash for a winter soup. It's a dark blue-green Italian variety with a silver luster and a flattened, rounded shape, pronounced ribs and a "warty" surface. Its thick pulp is deep orange. I have made this soup with different types of squash and pumpkin: Besides Marina di Chioggia, the best are gray or green kabocha with their dense pulp.
Winter Squash Soup
Ingredients and method:
1 ¾ pound roasted winter squash, skin removed
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ large onion, chopped
½ large leek cut into half-moon slices (or an additional ¼ onion, chopped)
1 ½ tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
2-inch long piece of kombu, optional
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
2 cups chicken broth or vegetable broth
4 cups water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preparing the squash
Preheat the oven to 375° F. If the squash is hard, pierce it with a blade in a few places. Place it on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat. Bake it for 15 minutes, then let it cool slightly. This makes it easier to cut.
Cut the squash (raw or baked as above) in half lengthwise and remove the seeds (a grapefruit spoon works well). Place squash halves on a silicone baking mat, cut side down. Bake the squash until it's tender enough to pierce easily with a blade. Let the squash cool before scraping the flesh off the skin with a spoon.
Weigh the squash — any extra is great for scones, bread or more soup.
For the soup
Rinse the leek well in a colander. Warm the olive oil in a soup pot on medium heat, then add onion and leek, stirring well to coat. Cook for a few minutes, then add the ginger and stir. Cook on gentle heat for another 8 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic, coriander, smoked paprika and the optional kombu. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes.
Place squash in the pot, stir and add the broth. Add enough water to cover well. Bring to a boil, covered, then turn down the heat so the soup bubbles gently. Cook for 25 minutes, then remove the pot from heat. Season with a bit of salt and pepper, and stir. Let the soup rest, covered, for 15 minutes, then purée with an immersion blender. Add water as needed to reach the desired consistency. Adjust salt and pepper, if needed.
Making the soup at least a few hours before serving will allow it to rest and ripen. Reheat before serving.