Q: What's a calabasa? I had some pork stew at a friend's house recently that was delicious. One of the ingredients she told me was calabasa, but I have no idea what that is.
Answer: Calabaza is related to pumpkin and other winter squashes in the cucumber family. It looks like a big pumpkin, but it is less likely to be stringy and has what many people consider to be a sweeter flavor.
It is commonly used throughout South and Central America as well as in the Caribbean area. Some people call it a West Indian pumpkin.
Because most of them are so big, they usually are sold in chunks wrapped in plastic wrap. You can find calabaza at most grocery stores, especially at any that carry Latin foods.
Adding cubes of it to soups and stews is one easy and popular way to cook it, but there are plenty of other variations. Mexican pork stew in particular often includes calabaza, as the sweetness makes a nice balance against the chili or peppers.
If you can't find calabaza, butternut squash is a good substitute -- better than pumpkin actually, since the flavor and texture are both very similar.
Q: We stopped at a small produce stand in another part of the state. They had some long roots that sort of looked like parsnips but were rougher and coarser, with a lot more side roots on them. The boy behind the table said his dad called it oysters and didn't know much more than that. What is this thing? How would it be cooked?
Answer: It was probably salsify. That matches the description you gave, and one of the common names for salsify is oyster plant. That's because to some people it tastes like oysters, but others say it tastes more like artichokes.
It is very common in much of Europe, particularly France, Spain, Germany and Russia, but never really got into the popular vegetable category here. It will grow in Florida but is usually only part of a backyard garden, not a commercial crop. Part of the problem is that while the insides are creamy white, it turns dark or brown very quickly once it's cut or broken.
There are actually two plants, in different families, that both go by the name salsify. One has the pale outer skin and looks more like the parsnip. That's the one you apparently saw. The other has a very dark, almost black skin that is much thicker. The flavors are about the same, but the black one seems to be easier to harvest, it doesn't break as easily and is easier to peel.
If you get them dug up without breaking the skin or the root, they will keep for months in a cool dry place. As for cooking, it does need to be peeled. It can be used in soups or stews, in casseroles with other vegetables, or alone often with a cream sauce. It can be fried or, as is so popular now, it can be roasted.
The mild flavor takes to many spices and herbs very nicely. Both kinds are low calorie, with A, C, E and some B vitamins. They have potassium, phosphorus, a little iron, calcium and sodium. Their starch is mostly complex carbohydrates, so it is digested slowly.
The leaves of the plants can be eaten, too, like spinach or collards. And the flowers of the white types are very pretty.