Fall is a favorite time of year for many people. There are colorful leaves, pumpkins on the front porch, cooler weather, and lots of winter squash, root vegetables, onions, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts from your farmers market to fill your soup pots and slow cookers.

Pumpkins are here from Smith Family Farm and Enos Farms to be carved into jack-o'-lanterns and made into pies; winter squash from Nunez Farm and Bautista Ranch can be turned into warm, tasty soups and stews; walnuts and almonds chopped for baking; elegant pears from Alhambra Valley Farm for desserts; and plump grapes to be served with sharp cheeses; and apples from L&M Farm and Rainbow Farms.

Winter squash is a wonderfully colorful and delicious vegetable, versatile in the kitchen and long-lasting enough to use as fall decorations on your front porch or tabletop for a month or two.

They come in an amazing array of colors, shapes, sizes, and varieties, most of which are available at your local farmers market.

Big butternut squash, banana squash, acorn squash and spaghetti squash are familiar, but expand your culinary horizons and try a kabocha, delicata, or a sweet dumpling squash.

Winter squash are one of those vegetables that people are sometimes afraid of utilizing in their recipes, some because they're not sure what to do with them, others because they're hard to cut open and prepare. Not true.

Here are some tips on cutting through those hard-shelled squash with less difficulty:

  • Make sure the skin of the squash is not sticky or slick. Place on a stable surface. Accidents happen when you start a cut and the squash slides away from you.

  • Score the squash deeply with a knife to form a "track" for the knife to follow.

  • You can microwave the squash for a few minutes to soften the skin and make it easier to cut, if you wish. About two minutes should be enough.

  • Use a knife with a thick spine, or back, or a cleaver to cut the squash. If you need to use a mallet, use a rubber one or pad the blade. Tap the mallet at the point where the blade and handle meet. If you do not have a mallet, lift the squash a little and thump it on the cutting surface to try to drive the knife through.

  • If you need to pull the knife from the squash because it seems stuck, be REALLY careful! This is where accidents frequently happen.

  • Cut in half first, scoop out seeds and then cut into chunks, wedges, or leave in half for roasting.

  • For peeling, use a sturdy swivel peeler for real hard skinned chunks.

    For butternut, cut off the ends, then the bulbous part, and then stand it on end. Use a thin bladed, very sharp, paring knife to slice away the skin from top to bottom. You can also do this with round squash you have halved.

    You are frequently better off just roasting the squash skin on, then peeling or scooping out the flesh when it's done.

    Winter squash is incredibly delicious with a sweet nutty flavor and smooth texture. Simple recipes are the best for bringing out their subtle flavor.

    Cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and bake. Or cut into cubes, toss with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast in the oven, 400°F for 40 to 45 minutes. Add to soups and stews for added sweetness and texture.

    Here's one of our family's favorite recipes for acorn squash:

    Roasted Acorn Squash with Brown Sugar & Maple Syrup

    3 acorn squash

    1/3 cup butter

    1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

    1/4 cup maple syrup

    Heat oven to 350°F. Cut squash in half lengthwise; remove seeds. Cut squash halves into quarters. Arrange slices in a glass baking dish; cover with foil. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until almost tender.

    Meanwhile, melt butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar and syrup. Cook just until sugar dissolves, stirring constantly.

    Remove squash from oven. Spoon brown sugar mixture over squash. Return to oven; bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until squash is tender, spooning sugar mixture occasionally over squash.

    Farmers markets are open rain or shine.

  • In Martinez, the Sunday market is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. year-round, at Main and Estudillo streets. The last day of the Thursday seasonal market is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 24, on Court Street between Main and Escobar streets.

  • The Pleasant Hill farmers market is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through Nov. 16, on Crescent Drive at Monument Plaza.

    Visit www.pcfma.com or call 800-949-FARM (800-949-3276).

    The Time is Ripe is a monthly column written by Debra Morris, promotions coordinator for the Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association. Contact her at debramorris@pcfma.com.

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