September 23, 2008
Driving out of Bowen on Avenida Sarmiento , the outskirts of town give way to rows of crops, tall alamos trees gridding off farm boundaries. And as you motor along, if you're not paying attention, you'll miss the vintage hubcap lashed to the fence of one of the farms, hand-painted with black lettering that reads 'DOÑA MARUCA'.
Doña Maruca (pictured above with her husband) is like some Argentinean Martha Stewart, making jams and preserves, canning, making sauces. On Saturdays she and a few others set up tables in the main square in General Alvear and sell their goodies to tourists, usually from Buenos Aires, who are passing though for a country weekend.
But Doña Maruca infuses what she does with love and creativity, adding her own hand into her work. So she has the standard canned peaches in syrup, pickled eggplant, olives and whole tomatoes, apricot jam and other typical things from that region. But she also makes grapes in grappa, figs in syrup, homemade alfajores and baked apple cake, juices, with flavors like grape and peach, and quince paste made from scratch, with little walnuts nestled inside. Oh, and homemade chimmichurri, re-bottled in an old Coca-Cola bottle, and re-sealed:
Doña Maruca also famously made a prize-winning squash into jam. Like many agricultural communities, the area around Bowen and Alvear had a contest to find the largest vegetables. Evidently, there was one butternut squash that was exceptional, and took the prize. After all the prize-winning excitement had passed, the farmer who grew it didn't quite no what to do with all that squash. So Doña Maruca offered to take it off his hands, and made her prize-winning squash jam.
I guess her philosophy can be summed up by saying when life hands you giant squash, make squash jam. She is a true regional treasure. One of those that if you're not careful, you might just miss.
Dulce de Zapallo
Of course, this is a recipe I adapted. Doña Maruca's recipes are top secret!
2 lbs. butternut squash, seeded, peeled and cut into smallish pieces
1 lb. sugar
2 cups (or more, as needed) of water
Place the squash in a medium-sized saucepan and just cover squash with water. Bring to a boil. Boil until the squash has become very soft, stirring frequently. Drain the water. In another saucepan, bring the 2 cups of water and sugar to a boil, stirring together. The sugar and water will become thick. Add in the squash, mashing the squash pieces to the texture desired. (It shouldn't be too chunky or too fine.) Cook, stirring together the squash and sugar and water, until you get a thick, jelly like substance, and most of the water has evaporated. Take care not to heat too high, you don't want scalded or burned squash. Put into jars, and can according to manufacturer's instructions, or put into jars and refrigerate to be consumed within 2 weeks. Enjoy spread on toast for breakfast or crackers with a cheese course.