Autumn Colors : Squash and gourds decorate the landscape at Phil McGrath's 10-acre patch in Camarillo.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Come Monday we usher in autumn. That means an end to summer's sweet fruits as local farmers concentrate on fall pickings. One of the first available at the market is squash.

The soft flesh of squash is a favorite to steam, stew, slice for fresh salads, even stuff with a variety of meats.

Phil McGrath's Central Market roadside stand in Camarillo has been a popular spot for squash fanciers in years past. He raises a number of varieties on 10 acres adjacent to the Ventura Freeway.

"We started with zucchini years back," said McGrath during a recent visit to his fields. McGrath soon found that his customers were interested in more than the ubiquitous zucchini. They requested other varieties as well, including those not normally seen in grocery stores.

"People began asking for specific squashes so every year we've offered more and more. Basically, there are about seven types that we have to have."

The recognizable pear-shaped butternut and the Hubbard, with its curved handle, are two of the favorites at Central Market, McGrath said.

Also available are the spaghetti, Tahitian, acorn and Kabocha varieties.

"Each has its own unique taste," McGrath said. "Some are mild and others are very sweet. When people come in they know exactly which squash offers the taste they prefer."

For his money, McGrath says the spaghetti is a standout.

"When cooked, it actually looks like spaghetti and the taste is wonderfully sweet," McGrath said. "It can be used as a pasta substitute."

Its hard outer shell demands ample time for cooking, he said. "I like to microwave it. You'll want to puncture it numerous times with a fork. Then microwave it for about 30-35 minutes. Cut in half and spoon out the seeds. Then just remove the stringy meat and throw on your favorite tomato sauce," he said. "If baked in an oven, it will take over an hour."

McGrath's squash patch is like an artist's palette of differing colors.

Resting on the soil, crops in an array of firey reds and oranges, soft yellows and deep greens beam through an overgrowth of large leaves.

"The fruit is so beautiful and the nice thing is every one is different from the other," he said.

But most of these beauties are not bought to be cooked into a favorite meal.

"Many are purchased for ornamentation," McGrath said.

Many are the nonedible squash types--called gourds--which are used to create woodsy autumn decorations placed over the mantle or used as a table centerpiece.

"I purchased a mixed gourd seed that produces the most wonderful colors," he said. What pops up is even a surprise to McGrath. Some oblong, some contorted, all colorful.

"I do grow two gourds besides the mixed. Those are the turban and the Crown of Thorns." The turban has a round, squat base with a smallish hat to top it off. The Crown of Thorns is grapefruit-sized and ringed with spikes.

Squash and gourd prices will vary from cheap to pricey.

"It can take up to five months for some squash and gourds to mature--some like the Tahitian even up to nine months. Since it stays in the ground so long you can expect higher prices from some," McGrath said.

* FYI

Squash and gourds can be purchased at Central Market at the Central Avenue exit from the Ventura Freeway in Camarillo. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, call (805) 983-1211.

SERVING SUGGESTION / SQUASH SOUP

1 large (1 3/4-pound) acorn squash

1 medium (1 1/4-pound) butternut squash

1 medium (2-pound) spaghetti squash

3 tablespoons hazelnut oil or light-tasting olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon fresh chopped thyme or 1 teaspoon dried

1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried

1/2 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg

4 to 5 cups chicken stock or broth

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Cayenne pepper

Cut each squash in half. Use large spoon to remove seeds and fibers from cavities. Rub cut surfaces with one tablespoon oil. Place cut side down on jellyroll pan. Put rack in center of oven. Bake at 350 degrees until tender, about 45 minutes.

Place remaining oil in three-quart pot over medium heat. Heat until hot. Add onions and garlic. Saute gently until tender but not browned, about five minutes, stirring often. Add thyme, rosemary, nutmeg and four cups stock or broth.

When cool enough to handle, scoop flesh from squash shells and measure 5 1/2 cups, solidly packed. Add to pot and simmer, covered, about 30 minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking. Puree soup in batches in blender of food processor unti very smooth. If soup is too thick, thin with remaining stock or broth. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne.

Serve hot or chilled. Add more stock if serving soup chilled. Makes 12 servings, about 10 cups. Can be made three days ahead and refrigerated or frozen up to six months.

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