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Autumn's Harvest, Seasonal Fall Produce

Sysco Shape October 2013

Fall means pumpkin, and much more. While the popular squash has long been a symbol of the changing season, not to mention an ingredient in pie, bread and other fall favorites, this year operators are trying something new. Industry experts say there are many other interesting varieties of squash, and other produce, that chefs can use to round out their autumn menus.

“There is a lot more going on now within the squash category," says Karen Beverlin, vice president of specialty produce and dairy for FreshPoint, Sysco's Fresh Produce Division. “Many farmers are looking at unusual squash varieties, and trying to find unique iterations of the standard squash."

Chefs are looking for new interpretations of the fall vegetable, and consumers are seeking foods that are delicious, comforting, healthy and even gluten-free. The answer, Beverlin says, lies in butternut, Tahitian, kabocha and delicata squash.

Butternut squash is becoming popular now because it is easier to prepare than acorn squash. Acorn squash has a thick, ridged rind that is difficult to peel, a labor-intensive task for a busy kitchen. Butternut squash is easier to peel and features a long neck, which is the most important part of the squash. “Chefs can do more with butternut squash because the neck is solid meat," Beverlin says. “You can cut it into pieces for roasting, cut it into slices, or punch it through with cookie cutters to make shapes."

Tahitian squash is similar in shape, with a small seed cavity and a long neck. Chefs prefer a squash with a small seed cavity because once they scrape away the seeds, there is not much left to eat.

Kobacha squash is another hard squash that chefs are favoring today. The variety, also known as Japanese pumpkin, has a very high starch content, Beverlin says, making it an ideal soup ingredient. A starchy squash can make the soup thick and creamy, so it can also help chefs who are looking for non-dairy ingredients for their soups.

Spaghetti squash is not as popular as it once was, but some restaurants offer it as part of a gluten-free, vegan entrée. They “menu" spaghetti squash with pesto as an alternative to pasta.
Delicata is another versatile squash. It is long and has the same diameter throughout its length, so the chef can slice it into rings and serve it with the skin. “It has little ridges, white skin with flecks of green and orange, and it's very pretty," Beverlin says.

Squash is rich in beta carotene, making it a healthy option. Other varieties include carnival squash, which looks like a small pumpkin, and turban squash, which looks like a small pumpkin half with a different shape for its other half. “A pumpkin is not a pumpkin," Beverlin says. “There are multiple varieties that have characteristics that can make or break a dish."

Other fall produce includes persimmon; two other varieties that are gaining popularity now are hachiya and fuyu. Hachiya needs to be super ripe, and is ideal for cooked foods and for baking. Fuyu is very good while still firm, and typically appears in salads. Consumers know about these items, Beverlin says, because they go to farmers markets and ask questions.

There is still a place for more traditional autumn foods. Apples are still a big favorite, and even though they are available year-round they can still be added to a menu as a fall special. Also, certain nuts appear in the fall. “One of the beauties of eating seasonally and purchasing foods seasonally is everything goes together," Beverlin says. “You can make a salad with roasted butternut squash and walnuts and apples and put pomegranate arils, the part that look like seeds, on top."

Some fall produce, such as certain cruciferous vegetables, are especially healthful, and people like eating these when it is cold outside. “Even though Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower are available all year long, the fall is very much their season," says Elizabeth Pivonka, president and CEO of the Produce for Better Health Foundation. “You also have beets, and when you bake all of these in the oven they have that smell that you think of in the fall."

Pivonka suggests serving soup in an acorn squash half instead of a bread bowl. Include apples and pears on salad. Serve Brussels sprouts with a grain such as quinoa or farro. Add vegetables to the tomatoes and beans in chili. Serve pasta with kale or with chard. Consider some new, fall harvest pizza toppings.

“The idea is to make the fruits and vegetables a bigger part of the entrée," Pivonka says. “Half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables."