Winter squash is a staple of most Thanksgiving meals — whether in a soup, casserole or pie. Luckily, all manner of locally grown winter squash is available at area farmers tailgate markets, farm stands and groceries, as well as on the menus of area restaurants this month.
One such eatery is the West End Bakery and Café. Co-owner Cathy Cleary has been growing neck pumpkins — with seeds she purchased from local company Sow True Seed — to use on her menu in everything from pumpkin chocolate-chip muffins to breads, pies and smoothies. In the future, she even plans to experiment with a fresh pumpkin latte.
What is it about the Neck that makes it Cleary’s favorite? “The flavor is sweet without being overpowering,” she says. “It’s perfect for making pumpkin pie.” Cleary is quick to point out, though, that she’s pretty much a fan of all types of winter squash, thanks to their versatility in the kitchen.
Jordan Randall’s favorite winter squash is butternut, a cousin of the neck pumpkin. As prepared-foods manager at the Hendersonville Community Co-op, Randall works with lots of varieties in his kitchen, but finds that butternut is easiest to clean and prepare. He’s also a big fan of the red kuri. “It has a really mellow flavor that’s a great starter for your Thanksgiving meal,” he says.
No matter which variety of winter squash you pick up at your neighborhood tailgate or grocery this month, both Cleary and Randall have some tips for preparation.
To “preserve your fingers” while preparing squash for risotto or a roasted vegetable salad, Randall suggests placing the whole squash in the oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes in order to make it easier to peel. For a purée or soup, “cut the very top and bottom off of the squash, scoop out the seeds with a spoon or melon baller and simply roast face-down on a baking pan until tender to the touch,” Randall advises.
Going the pie route? You can use your fresh, local squash over the canned stuff by making your own pie puree. “I actually feel that pumpkin pie turns out best when you use fresh pumpkin,” says Cleary. “Your pie is lighter and not as dense.”
If you want to replicate the texture of canned pumpkin, “just cook down your fresh purée to about three quarters of the original volume so that it is really quite thick,” Cleary says. In either case, make sure that your pumpkin is fully cooked before you puree it for baked goods. “If it’s still a little hard in places, that means the starches haven’t fully converted to sugars,” she says. That means your puree won’t be as sweet.
While Cleary shares a requisite pumpkin pie recipe on the next page, early Appalachian Thanksgiving feasts featured Candy Roaster squash pies instead. Tailgate vendors likely only have a few Candy Roasters left (they went quick this season), but you can also try out the tradition with other varieties. “As long as the squash is a sweet variety, it will work,” Cleary says.
You’ll find winter squashes featured on the menus of eateries in addition to West End and the Co-op now, as they’re the focus of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Get Local — an initiative that brings together farmers, chefs, and community members around the region to celebrate a single seasonal ingredient while at its peak.
To find a list of participating restaurants, visit the Get Local page of asapconnections.org. There, you’ll also find information about Get Local in area schools. This month, chefs from Tupelo Honey Café, Red Stag Grill and Cúrate (opening in the spring) whipped up delicious winter squash dishes with students from Fairview, Claxton, and Glen Arden elementary schools. Find additional information about ASAP’s work with area schools at growing-minds.org.
Holiday markets are here
While local winter squashes are at their peak of availability this month, you’ll continue to spot them at farmers markets until they close for the winter.
What else can you expect to find at upcoming holiday tailgates? More late-season produce, meats and cheeses, wreaths and locally grown Christmas trees, baked goods, and handmade gifts—from crafts to clothing.
Note that Asheville City Market’s holiday hours change to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and that the 9th annual Holiday Bazaar moves this year to the site of the North Asheville Tailgate Market on the UNCA campus. For holiday market dates and details for tailgates from Buncombe to Yancey County, visit ASAP’s website at asapconnections.org. For market locations, visit ASAP’s online Local Food Guide at buyappalachian.org.
— Maggie Cramer is the communications coordinator at ASAP. Contact her at�firstname.lastname@example.org