Simply put, la zucca is pumpkin, in Italian. It is the word that I have used the most in the past weeks. I have chopped them, searched for them, harvested, them and dined on them in nearly every corner of Italy, but there is still more. There are still fairs to attend, restaurants to dine in, and seeds to explore. I have been a bit lost in a flurry of action, as festivals run back-to-back. The connection to the people of Italy is so immediate. I show a photo, I note that I am a producer of pumpkins, and it seems that hearts open up. they forgive my “bad Italian” because I speak the ultimate Italian: farming. The production of food is more important than language.
Every village seems to have them in the shops, every Airbnb in which I stay has one on the kitchen counter. This wonderfully simple vegetable is loved here in Italy.
I have crossed from Slow Food Terra Madre in Turin, to Florence, to Mondovi, to Alba, to Lecce, Orsara di Puglia, Naples, then launched north to Germany. I tour festivals and fields, corner markets, and kitchen counter tops. Seeds fill my pockets, squash fills my stomach, and I sleep well at night. In the weeks ahead, I will be sharing my journey with you, one zucca at a time.
After 20 years, the Waimea farm fair returned this year. Expanding on the giant pumpkin growing contest of years past, this year brought tomato tasting and pumpkin cooking elements as well. I may max out at a 45lb squash, so no “giants” for me, but I do love to celebrate with the growers. It is a squash solidarity. You do not understand patience until you grow squash in Hawaii.
Pumpkin and squash can be tricky here and Hawaii, and our giants can vary by hundreds of pounds from season to season. But that isn’t the point, the point is that community gathered to celebrate nature, ambition, and the pure dedication that it takes. HPA school entered three very different pumpkins that helped to illuminate how different pumpkins from the same patch can be. The Largest at rear of photo took 1st in the school garden category) Soil maverick and giant pumpkin grower Noah Dodd led the way for HPA by using his own unique soil microbe building methods to get the squash to grow to super sized proportions.
I know and respect organic grower Donna Mitts, who has been giving me updates throughout the season. ( see image above) Her squash was golden and beautiful, and very deserving of the attention that it got. She named the squash Myrtle, and it grew into it’s name.
Baby Max showed the enthusiasm that we all felt. Here Max celebrates Donna’s pumpkin. Council woman Margaret Wille joined Donna Mitts and myself in a photo among the giant pumpkins. Chefs and home cooks alike marveled at the culinary possibilities.
Young Kawika Winters himself weighed in at only 1/2 a pound more than the giant pumpkin that he grew. Here he awaits the judging flanked by the other contenders.
Ribbons were awarded in many categories, including record keeping for the school gardeners. How wonderful to reward a quieter, but valuable dedication. Mala’ai School garden won the record keeping prize by creating a beautiful photo log that captured the season. http://www.malaai.org
After the celebrations for giant pumpkins, we moved on over to the tomato tasting and pumpkin cooking competition.
As the judging took place, many of us marveled at the challenges of comparing the beautiful island grown produce. We were very happy to see some of our islands best including the innovative Chef Sandy that were part of the judging crew.
Then more talk of pumpkins. Donna Mitts wore many hats throughout the event including making the wonderful and refreshing “Pumpkin Juice” that cooled us under the hot Waimea sun. She used pumpkin puree, apple juice and pumpkin pie spice to make this welcomed treat. Then came the judging of the pumpkin cooking contest. Many of us were nervous as the judges buzzed around through plate after plate of homemade, beautiful food. There were three categories, including Main course, desert, and misc category. Pumpkin butter, pumpkin curry, pumpkin tortellini, pumpkin nut bread, pumpkin casserole, pumpkin chiffon pie, pumpkin crumble, and my dish Pumpkin Noodle Nut.
I am not sure why I was nervous with such a wonderful mix of people celebrating food. But when farmer/organizer Paul Johnson and the judges gave the “all clear sign” that the crowd could sample all things squash, my tension eased, as we laughed and nibbled the plates clean.
I mean we really went for it. Each dish was special, and made with love. We celebrated local ingredients and family recipes.
Paul was a good sport, and surprised us all by reappearing in costume. The kids loved it!
Then the prizes were announced by category. I would not have been a very good judge, because, each one was so wonderful. It was like picking puppies or kittens. The unique dishes were creative and flavorful, and many were very nutritious as well.
I took a risk by entering a brand new recipe to the contest. I wanted to showcase squash as much as possible in one dish. I had made a gluten free, vegan recipe called noodle nut last year. After meeting with Chef Stephen of Under the Bodhi Tree restaurant in the shops of Mauna Lani http://www.underthebodhi.net I was inspired to try new things. So I changed my existing recipe to include cooked pumpkin puree, ground toasted pumpkin seeds, and grated fresh pumpkin. Chef Stephen does raw and vegan entrees, and also loves to use pumpkin seed. Pumpkin is so versatile, so I thought…heck go for it, this is the only pumpkin contest we have ever had on the island, so I thought it is time to pull out all of the stops.
So just a day before the contest, I was revamping and “pushing the pumpkin” into the recipe, and I am so glad I did. Using all gluten free and vegan ingredients, my home grown black pumpkins, home grown cayenne chili peppers, Pat Hall’s aquaponic grown green onions, and local macadamia nuts. It was an island proud dish. The empty dish says it all. It was cleaned out and awarded a 2nd place ribbon in the main dish category. Third went to the lovely pumpkin curry, and first place went to one of our island’s best chefs, Executive chef James Babian. Chef Babian was the Executive chef of the Four Seasons resort here on the Big Island. He can be credited with helping to move the buy local movement here over a decade ago. He makes his own pasta from scratch in the kitchen of the restaurant that he and his wife Christine created in Waikoloa village named Pueo’s Osteria. http://www.pueososteria.com Go there, trust me.
Let’s just say if anyone deserves first place, I have to say it is him. I managed to get one lone tortellini off the plate before the other tasters descended. It was divine, and sort of melted in your mouth. I feel lucky to have gotten one, and no, I have no photos, because it was either grab one, or photograph it. So sorry blogosphere, but eating won. It was that good. But watch out Executive Chef Babian, I’ll be back next year with another year of pumpkin cooking under my belt. I’ll do my best to take on your tortellini again..or at least be quite ready to again grab one off the tasting plate.
Mahalo to all those who attended, volunteered their expertise, and added their talents to the day. We all love a good come back story, and what better come back than that of the community farm fair.
Heart is skipping a beat or two at this image of Robert Downey Jr and my Thai Rai Kaw Tok heirloom squash. They both look great! Mr and Mrs Downey, Chef Charles Voudouris, and the entire Team Downey posse made a noble effort to source all that was local, ethically produced, and sustainably grown.
That is me sitting in the shade of the pumpkin “curing station” surrounded by the fruits of my labors. How do you choose? Each has a distinct color, texture, flavor and moisture level. Many Chefs enjoy trying a few and find the ones that they most enjoy. A signature squash if you will.