On a blustery day in late October, the WNC Farmer’s Market was the picture of autumn. Leaves pirouetted through the air as small children with woolen caps pulled over their ears dragged their parents about searching for the perfect pumpkin to turn into a jack-o’-lantern. A young boy, perhaps 6 years old, considered a brilliantly orange “Cinderella” pumpkin the size of a tricycle that was grown in some Hendersonville patch. “That is the biggest pumpkin I ever, ever saw in my whole life … ever!” he pronounced with wide-eyed amazement.
Though not quite as transfixed as the young one, I was nevertheless thrilled by the panoply of winter squashes and pumpkins piled about the various stands and stalls, displaying colors as vibrant as those of our fall mountains. I found the selection at Tom’s Produce to be particularly interesting, all of it from local sources. I quickly discovered that Lynn Allen, who was watching over the vegetables that day, was quite adept at identifying different varieties of squash. “Let’s see, we’ve got sweet dumpling, carnivals, fairy-tales … ,” she began, explaining that most of them came from Lincoln County.
“Any of these are good to cook with,” she continued, gesturing toward the entire inventory of squash. “There’s pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, soup – squash or pumpkin – and some use those blue Australians for a [side] vegetable.” Allen said that many of the local squashes will be available through Thanksgiving, though the harvest was a little short this year (local white pumpkins and spaghetti squash may be hard to come by) due to excessive heat and too much rain later in the season.
Even if you aren’t a fan of winter squash, you should be able to appreciate its health benefits. It’s packed with vitamins, antioxidants, cancer-fighting phytonutrients, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Baked butternut may just beat the proverbial “apple a day” for fighting winter illnesses.
Even picky eaters may enjoy the following recipe, a gratin of sorts, that utilizes readily available fall produce. This dish makes a fine side to stewed or roasted meats, or, if served with Great Northern beans and winter greens, a seasonally appropriate vegetarian meal. Different squashes and roots can be substituted in the casserole, though the recommended ones in the following recipe may prove to be the most widely available. Be sure to check out your local farmer’s market for a cornucopia of fall goodies, such as the local buttercup and Kennebec potatoes used below.
Autumn Vegetable Casserole
1 medium-large winter squash – such as buttercup – peeled, halved and de-seeded
1 medium-large sweet potato, peeled
3 medium potatoes, peeled – versatile potatoes like the Kennebec variety work well
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 pint half-and-half
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan (or more if a cheesy casserole is desired)
Skimpy pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
6 T unsalted butter, melted
2 T fresh thyme
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
Bread crumbs (optional)
3 T all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper (preferably white) to taste
To prepare the dish:
Preheat oven to 350. Thinly slice sweet potato, potato and winter squash (a mandolin slicer works quite well). Soak potatoes in a bowl of cool tap water to keep them from browning. Keep both the sweet potatoes and squash separate. Slowly melt 4 T of the butter, reserving the other 2 T for later. Grease the bottom of a two-quart baking dish with 1 T of the melted butter. To the rest of the melted butter, add onion and garlic, then sauté on medium heat until tender. Reduce heat to medium-low and whisk in flour until smooth. Cook, stirring the mixture until it turns golden-brown. Slowly whisk in half-and-half, then add bay leaf, nutmeg, salt, pepper and thyme. Simmer until the mixture has thickened.
Meanwhile, drain potatoes. Toss squash and the sweet and regular potatoes with salt and pepper, still keeping them separate. In a baking dish, arrange the sweet potatoes in a layer. Sprinkle layer with 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, adding some fresh herbs if you would like. Repeat with potatoes for the next layer; squash for the top. Pour in milk mixture, insuring that the liquid seeps all the way through to the bottom. Finish with rosemary, the remainder of the cheese and the bread crumbs (if you are using them). Dot with remaining butter, cover with plastic wrap, and then foil. Bake until tender, approximately 45 minutes. To finish, broil until the top is lightly browned. Serves 4-6 with some usually left over.