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Local summer squash is reaching the end of its season, and now local crops of winter squash are beginning to show up in our farmers’ markets and supermarkets.

Hooray, for the tastiest, locally grown, organic winter squashes entering their peak season, which runs from October to January. But to enjoy peak flavor, you need to know about ripening winter squash.

First, let’s look at the history of this wonderful vegetable. Squashes of all types were domesticated by indigenous people of Central America about 10,000 years ago — about 4,000 years before corn or beans, the other two members of the trio of foods known as the Three Sisters, and which together form a complete protein — as good as meat, but without the meat.

They were independently domesticated later by the indigenous tribes of eastern North America, and it was the Narragansett tribe of what is now Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts who called it askutasquash, which English settlers shortened to squash.

Thin-skinned, short-lived summer squashes are botanically Cucurbito pepo while winter squash with its hard rinds and fully developed seeds are Cucurbito maxima. Same genus, different species.

Butternut squash has long been considered the ultimate winter squash for nutrition, texture and flavor, but there’s a new champion in town on all three quality points: kabocha squash. Besides locally grown organic kabochas at the farmers’ markets, you’ll find them at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Oliver’s.

Kabochas have twice the beta-carotene (which our body transforms into vitamin A) of butternut, rich stores of vitamin C and some B vitamins, plus more dietary fiber, fewer calories per cup, and a probiotic effect on the intestinal microbiome that controls our immune system. The two or three pounds of gut bacteria that we host internally, and that we have discovered are crucial for our health, love nothing more than a meal of nutrient-rich kabocha squash. When our gut bacteria are healthy and happy, so are we.

Our new champion has a velvety texture despite its plenitude of dietary fiber, so you can steam it, then mash it and add it to soups and stews to thicken them.

Kabocha’s flavor is rich and sweet, but reaches perfection only after it has ripened. So here’s the skinny on that: when kabocha is harvested, it’s not completely ripe. It needs a period of rest for its rind to harden, its stem to turn hard and corky, the seeds to fully ripen within it, and the flesh to sweeten up to its full potential.

When you bring a kabocha home, store it in a warm place — about 77 or 78 degrees — for a couple of weeks. This starts the enzymatic process of converting the starches in the flesh to sugar. Then store it in a cool place — about 50 degrees — for a month or two. Actually, it will continue to sweeten up into February.

By “store it,” I mean setting it stem side up on a pad of newspapers out of direct sunlight in a place where cool air can freely circulate around it. The just-harvested, bland-tasting fresh kabocha will become smooth, sweet, and succulent. Its flesh will be a deep reddish-orange. If you bring one home in October, it’ll be perfect from Thanksgiving right through the holidays.

Kabocha squash is a staple in many Asian cuisines. One of its common names is Japanese Pumpkin. The Japanese batter slices for tempura. Thai chefs roast it, bake it, and especially use it to add substance to curries.

Cut the squash in half crosswise, then scoop out the seeds until only flesh is left. Cut the halves into wedges. Roast these with olive oil, salt, pepper, and spices of your choice. Or simmer them in broth or curry. You can bake wedges until soft, then puree them. The rind is edible, although it’s chewy when ripe so you might choose to slice it off. Bake it with cheese for extra flavor. Grate raw kabocha into shreds and add them to cakes, muffins, breads, and desserts. Think carrot cake, but with shredded kabocha instead of carrots. Instead of pumpkin, use the baked flesh to make an extra flavorful pumpkin pie.

When selecting a kabocha, look for wide segments of deep, rich green separated by thin strips of celadon or lighter green. Give it a heft. It should be surprisingly heavy. If there are some golden speckles, that indicates it’s getting ripe.

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These fun-to-make kabocha gnocchi are not only delicious, but have a soft, pillowy texture. They could be the perfect fall or winter dinnertime show stealer.

Kabocha Squash Gnocchi

Makes 4 servings

1/2 kabocha squash, seeded

3 tablespoons drawn butter or olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves, minced, plus four leaves whole

— Sea salt to taste

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

— Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

3/4 cup buckwheat flour

— Brown rice flour for rolling and flouring

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil the cut side of the squash with butter or olive oil and cook on a baking sheet cut side down for 30 minutes or until soft throughout.

Let the squash cool, then scoop out the flesh and mash into a puree. Place one cup of the flesh into a large mixing bowl. Reserve the rest of the flesh and freeze for later use.

Add the minced sage, one tablespoon of the butter or olive oil, salt, nutmeg, red pepper flakes, and ¾ cup of the buckwheat flour to the mixing bowl, and mix until well incorporated. It should be sticky, but not too wet. If it seems very wet, add just ¼ cup more of the buckwheat flour, but no more than that, or the texture will coarsen.

Flour a working surface with plenty of brown rice flour and scoop the dough onto the floured surface with a large spoon. Cover the top of the dough with more rice flour. Flour your hands and roll the dough into a log about a foot long.

Cut the log into four pieces. Using plenty of rice flour, roll each piece into a rope about a ½-inch wide. Cut the ropes into one-inch pieces, making sure the freshly cut ends are floured. Using a floured fork, gently make an impression with the tines on each piece. Transfer the finished pieces to a floured baking sheet.

Half fill a pot with a cover and place a metal or bamboo steamer basket on top. Bring water to a boil, making sure the water doesn’t touch the steamer basket. Add the gnocchi to the basket in batches so the pieces don’t touch each other, lower the heat to a simmer, and cover. Steam each batch for a full seven minutes. Transfer the finished gnocchi to a platter.

In a large skillet over low heat, gently heat 2 tablespoons of the butter or olive oil with the whole sage leaves. Heat for about four minutes. Don’t scorch or cook. Remove the leaves and add the finished gnocchi to the skillet. Toss to coat, letting the gnocchi absorb the sage-infused oil for a couple of minutes and serve immediately. The gnocchi can be served as is, or with chimichurri sauce or pesto.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.

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