Last May, a tiny pattypan squash seed was planted just off Bones Road in Sebastopol.
Over the next few weeks, that seed, along with hundreds of others, was nurtured in the warmth of Chef Natalie Goble’s Two Belly Acres Farm greenhouse, sprouting tiny leaves until it could withstand the unpredictability of June weather in Sonoma. Once replanted in the loamy soil, pesky gophers were kept at bay as blossoms formed, bugs nibbled, the sun shone and summer rolled on.
June turned to July, and miniature versions of the summer squash — pattypan, zucchini and crooknecks — grew by leaps and bounds, waiting patiently among the vines for their closeups at nearby Peter Lowell’s Restaurant, or the forthcoming Handline Restaurant in Sebastopol.
Whether we think about it or not, behind every apple, every plum, lettuce, tomato and summer squash is a seed-to-table story. There are pests to control, weeds to pick and the backbreaking work of harvest before our produce sits neatly on a grocery shelf, at a farmers market or on our plates at a restaurant.
We wanted to know that story, about a single row of squash planted on a farm just off Bones Road, in west Sonoma County, that went from humble to haute in just a 5-mile radius.
Seed to table
Two days earlier, at the home of Goble and Lowell Sheldon, co-founder of Peter Lowell’s, a pile of summer squash from that single row of zucchini, crooknecks and pattypans had been roasted and diced, then covered with a sauce that Goble calls “smothered squash,” something between a romesco and a Oaxacan mole made with almonds, pumpkin seeds, tomato puree, spices and garlic. She’s trying out the dish for the couple’s soon-to-open casual eatery, Handline. The “Coastal California” restaurant has been a work in progress for more than a year and will focus on seafood, handmade tortillas and local produce.
Goble’s is the kind of dish that takes advantage of the bumper crop of squash about to descend on Handline and nearby Peter Lowell’s, which the couple also owns. Simple, but flavorful, it’s an incidentally vegan dish that showcases squash as a flavor carrier — something it’s well suited to do.
Unlike many some restaurants that get their produce from markets, Handline and Peter Lowell’s are committed to using Two Belly Acre’s entire harvest, even if that means summer squash in just about every dish during the height of the season. It’s something many home gardeners have experienced.
“Squash is of the moment at the farm, and I love its versatility, from shaved raw, battered and fried, and even blended,” said Goble. “I can do pretty much anything with it to showcase its flavor and texture,” she said.
“Squash is a great vehicle for flavor,” said Joe Zobel, chef at Peter Lowell’s. The eight-year-old Sebastopol restaurant has become known for its commitment to using local produce, especially from its farm. During the summer, about 60 percent of the produce comes from Two Belly Acres farm.
That can lead to seasonal tsunamis at the restaurant.
“You can’t just grow a small amount of it,” said Zobel. He has been receiving boxes of squash for several weeks, which will continue well into September. Starting in August, he estimates they will receive 20 to 30 pounds a week from Two Belly Acres.
Sound like a lot? When he first started cooking at the restaurant two years ago, the farm was producing three times as much squash. “We’ve gotten better at staggering the harvest,” he said, with a sigh. Nearly 100 pounds of squash per week proved, well, challenging.
With today’s harvest, he has made mushroom broth for the squash crudo, pickled summer vegetables and squash polpette that’s almost too pretty to sully with a fork. At its heart, it’s a fancy sort of vegetable soup with squash fritters, but in this guise, there’s no doubt this is some pin-up worthy produce.
“You have to have a lot of ideas,” said Zobel. Other dishes in his squash portfolio include linguine with summer squash, Marin Coast Coon Stripe shrimp and squash blossoms; summer squash budino (pudding) with preserved plums, smoked morel mushrooms and corn polenta; tempura squash fritto misto with ricotta stuffed blossoms; and bone marrow broth with squash crudo.
Because the squash just keeps on coming.
Where the magic happens
There’s still a lot happening a few miles away at Two Belly Acres. In the hot July sun, in what was once an apple orchard, Natalie Goble walks on the dirt between rows of chard, kale, baby tomatoes, onions and the squash.
This was where she grew up, where her father tried his hand at farming, where her brother had his “field of dreams” baseball field and, finally, the two acres of farm she, her brother and his girlfriend have rehabbed into a nearly year-round source of produce for the restaurant. If the gophers don’t get it first.
Goble reaches into a tangle of hairy leaves to snap off a pattypan squash, bright yellow with scalloped edges. She rolls it around in her hand, smiling. “It’s so pretty, so sunny,” she says, carefully sidestepping a new row of summer squash seedlings just beginning to sprout.
Still warm from the sun, this little pattypan that grew from a seed on a small farm on Bones Road is destined for another box of produce delivered to the restaurant, prepared by the chef and served up all summer long, until the last squash is harvested and another crop comes into focus.
But that’s another story.
(featured photo of Two Belly Acres Farm, photo: Dawn Heumann)