Califonia Bountiful

Ideas you can warm up to

Nov./Dec. 2007 California Country magazine

Leeks, kiwifruit, quince and winter squash are some of the delicious seasonal selections at the ready for your creative applications this winter.

Cold weather and shorter days trigger cravings for more hearty, nurturing fare—and warming soups, stews and braised dishes come to the fore. "In the produce aisles, choices have been winnowed from full summer/fall glory, but there are delicious seasonal selections all at the ready for your creative applications," says Andy Powning, produce specialist at GreenLeaf Produce in San Francisco.

Here are a few recommendations:

Leeks: This versatile onion family member thrives in rich soil, such as that along California's Central Coast. Prized for their mildness, leeks tend to enhance other ingredients and, in a sense, pull everything together. "If you've never had a soul-warming bowl of potato-leek soup, you haven't lived," Powning said.

Try braising leeks whole in a combination of stock and water, with some butter or olive oil.

"This long, slow cooking method will produce meltingly tender, richly flavored leeks—a perfect side for pork, poultry, beef or even fish," Powning said. "You can also use the same cooking method with chopped leeks, with some celery added, for a different and fast veggie side."

Tip: For easy cleaning, cut leeks down lengthwise from the top about 4 inches and plunge upside down in warm water. Repeat as necessary. Eat the white portion and add the green portion to your compost pile.

Kiwifruit: This deciduous vine native to eastern Asia was originally known in our neck of the woods as Chinese gooseberry. Where did the name change come from?

"The story goes that the fruit was well known and widely grown in New Zealand, but sales to the U.S. were stymied by a less-than-glamorous name," Powning said. "So, the New Zealanders coined the moniker ‘kiwi' after their national bird, and their goal of creating greater demand for this flattish, oblong fruit was met."

California now ranks first in U.S. kiwi production. While kiwi is most commonly used as a garnish or salad ingredient, Powning offers another, more unique, suggestion: "Like papaya, kiwi contains an enzyme that tenderizes meat. Try rubbing your next flank steak to see what happens!"

Quince: A relative to both the pear and apple, this ancient fruit is not well known or used today, "which is a shame," Powning said, "because cooked properly it is thing of unique and delightful beauty."

Grown in small quantities in California, the quince resembles a lumpy yellow apple. They are quite firm, and while some cuisines eat them raw (very thinly sliced), they are generally cooked because of their astringent nature.

"The amazing qualities of quince come out through long, gentle poaching in a simple sugar syrup. The peeled, seeded, sliced fruit transforms from being hard and grainy-textured into a firm, yet custardy-soft delicacy," Powning said. "You may also prepare as for baked apples or try combining with apples in a pie for a seasonal twist."

Winter squash: Patience is now rewarded with the fruition of this long-to-mature squash type. Planted in spring and harvested in October and November, many varieties are now secured for the winter duration because they are such good keepers.

What we know as summer squash (zucchini, for example) is harvested young, with skin and flesh still tender; winter squash varieties are allowed to ripen on the vine. California ranks first in all squash production, with approximately 82 tons harvested from 7,500 acres.

While most types of winter squash are fairly similar in taste, Powning attests that some of the smaller heirloom varieties such as Delicata, Carnival and Buttercup deserve a try. "They not only are fantastic eating, but their size works beautifully for use as individual portions and are perfect for stuffing."

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