The Local Food Report: Dill's Giant Atlantic

Peter Staaterman's pumpkin patch started out innocently enough. He was paging through the seed catalog with his wife Dilys—you know, the way you do in the spring, exclaiming over the new haricot verts and admiring a particularly plump new tomato—when Dill's Giant Atlantic Pumpkin caught their eye.

"It has your name!" Peter remarked to his wife. "We'll have to get it!" And so they did.

(Photo courtesy Howard Dill Enterprises; Howard Dill with his crop.)

Needless to say, it was a black and white seed catalog, no pictures like the one you've seen up there. They had no idea—no inkling of what they were getting into. They planted the seeds, staked out a plot, and several months later were astonished to see two huge hulks of orange peeking out from under the vines. They grew only two pumpkins in a 20- by 25-foot plot: a one-hundred-and-seventy-five pounder and a hundred pounder.

This seemed big—gigantic even—but astonishingly enough, it turns out, these were actually very small. Dill's Giant Atlantic Pumpkins are trademark registered as the World's Largest Pumpkin Variety, and last year, a woman named Christy Harp from Ohio grew the biggest one ever, weighing in at 1725 pounds. The seeds are sold in weight categories: 1000 lbs and up, 500 to 1000, 250 to 500. Next year, Staaterman says, he's going up.

His big one won first prize at the Truro Ag Fair—a beautiful yellowy-orangey color with long, thick ribs. A woman walked by who does pies and estimated she could make 500 pies out of the pumpkin—an exaggeration, but still. Staaterman says that according to the folks at Dill's, the pumpkins are edible, and you can count on a pound per pie—which brings his potential count down to a mere one hundred and seventy five. Just the thought of it makes me want to grab my rolling pin and hide.

A better use, I think—just in case any of you are thinking of going Dill's crazy next year—might be to bake the smaller ones, and make the bigger ones into the biggest-ever, scariest-ever jack-o-lanterns. Just imagine: a Dill's Giant Atlantic carved up, staring at you with spooky eyes and a hollowed out cavern of 1700 pounds.

You can find the seeds over here, and more growing information over here. Happy Halloween, everyone!


This is my grandmother's recipe. I've titled it exactly as she wrote it out on the card—and true to her word, this pie never fails. I usually use homemade pureed pumpkin or winter squash in place of the canned pumpkin—but that's the only tweak. Oh! and a note about amounts—this recipe makes two pies. Halve it, or give one to a friend!

4 eggs, beaten slightly
24 ounces pureed pumpkin or winter squash
1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
13 fluid ounces evaporated milk
two 9-inch pie crusts, preferably homemade

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Whisk together the ingredients in the order given and pour the filling into the two bottom crusts. Bake for 15 minutes; turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45. Enjoy warm or cold, with a thick dollop of whipped cream.

P.S. Peter just sent me this link to a Science Friday video on the physics of giant pumpkins. Check it out!


At the very end

My mother has a habit of traveling with food. Whenever she comes she arrives with a packed cooler: extra arugula from their CSA pick-up, a half gallon of cream she thinks ought to be used up, a few prime tomatoes from the pots on the patio out back. This trip, she brought us an eggplant—a two-pound, deep purple, homegrown beaut.

It's getting late for eggplant—like the tomatoes and the squash, it's time to harvest the last few fruits, untangle the vines, and yank the rows out—but this is when I like it best. It's too hearty for the heat of August, too rich for Indian Summer, too elegant. It's better, I've always thought, as a crisp days, chilly nights kind of event, toward the close of the season, when you catch it at the very end.

When I first saw the one my mother brought, I was thinking ratatouille. But then the recipe next to it in Victory Garden Cookbook, the Eggplant Parmesan, caught my eye. The recipe was simple: we had tomatoes, onions, red wine for sauce, we had basil and oregano and bread crumbs for the eggplant's crust. We had eggs for the coating, a ball of mozzarella and the last of a hunk of Parmesan for the rich, bubbly top.

The oven warmed up the kitchen, spilled out into the dining room, took the chill off the windows and fogged up the glass. We cut through the layers and I could almost hear the change: warmth giving into frost in a small, quiet gasp.


This is the sort of recipe that you make once, and suddenly, you can't imagine life before Eggplant Parmesan. The header in the Victory Garden says that homemade tomato sauce is best, and I have to agree. Otherwise, success is pretty much guaranteed.

a roughly 2-pound eggplant
3 eggs
2 tablespoons water
1 and 1/2 cups dried bread crumbs
4 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried
1/2-3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup basil leaves, packed
1 ball mozzarella cheese, sliced
3 cups tomato sauce, preferably homemade

Peel the eggplant and trim the ends. Cut it into 1/4-inch thick slices the long way. Get out a 9- by 13-inch casserole dish, layer the eggplant slices in, and salt them. Let drain for 30 minutes, then pat dry with a dishtowel.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Get out two shallow bowls. In one, beat together the eggs with the water. In the other bowl, whisk together the bread crumbs and oregano. Dip the eggplant slices first into the egg mixture, then into the bread crumb mixture. Heat up 1/4 cup of the oil in a large frying pan, and sauté the eggplant slices until golden brown on both sides. Remove the slices and drain them on a dishtowel. Cook the rest of the eggplant, adding oil as needed, and drain.

Rinse out the casserole dish and layer half the eggplant slices evenly across the bottom. Sprinkle with a third of the Parmesan cheese and layer on half the basil leaves, a third of the mozzarella slices, and half the tomato sauce. Repeat the layers and top with the remaining Parmesan and mozzarella. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the layers are heated through and the cheese on top is golden brown and bubbly.


Two new

Two new babies came into our little town this week. Two boys, to two dear friends. It's always hard to know how soon to visit, what to bring, what they both might need to get them through the first over-joyed, over-tired days. So you do what feels right—this week, I baked.

The recipe I used was one I read at the bottom of a friend's essay a few years back. New Moms, it was called—I clipped it and tucked it away. The piece was published September, and it's just the thing for an autumn delivery: butternut squash, cinnamon, nutmeg, whole wheat. The other day I pulled a squash off the windowsill, roasted it tender, pureed it and baked a batch of muffins, a plate for each.

Everyone's home now—healthy, fed, happy. In case you have someone to welcome, I want you to have the recipe. But you're going to have to get it from the source, over here, because half the beauty is reading the essay.


The Local Food Report: for boletes

The other day, Richard Bailey took me foraging for boletes.

If you don't remember Richard, he's the one who took me foraging for morels this spring, and when it comes to local mushrooms, he knows his stuff. Last week was a particularly good one for mushrooms—plenty of rain followed by some warm, sunny days—and so he decided it was time to introduce me to his favorite family of late summer, early fall mushrooms: boletes.

Boletes are soft and fleshy, and grow out from the ground. They grow in cooperation with the roots of trees (mycorrhizal is the official word for the relationship), and are generally found in open forests of mixed oaks and pines. They are soft and fleshy, with a stalk, a cap, and a spongy bottom made up of layers of tubes underneath. (If you see gills, put the mushroom down. It's not a bolete.)

The most common type, and the one Richard says tastes best, is golden brown—the color of a particularly vivid fallen oak leaf, or maybe a well-baked biscuit—on top. He looks for them by that color, and their shape—they have a rounded, sort of helmety look that jumps out fairly readily from the leaf litter and grass of the woods. When he picks them, he cuts them from the bottom of the stem, then turns them over to check for the spongy bottom underneath. They're out for a while—from as early as July through the first frost—and unlike morels, you can easily expect to get a whole bucketful on a good foraging trip.

Of course, then you have to figure out how to eat your haul. Richard says he's dried them before, sliced and arranged on baking trays in the oven, and that it went fairly well. Mostly, though, he just eats them: sautéed in a bit of butter and garlic and olive oil until they lose their juice, and start to get dry.

He's encountered a few bad boletes along the way—some bitter ones, and apparently there's also one variety that's toxic enough not to kill you, but to give you a fairly terrible stomach ache—but he says that if you stick with the golden biscuits, boletes are pretty safe. Of course, that doesn't mean you that if you decide to go out you shouldn't go with an experienced friend, and bring a book. (That link, by the way, is to the chapter in Mushrooms of Cape Cod and the National Seashore on boletes. Scroll down past the Bird's Eye Fungi, and there you are.) It's just to say if you're interested, it's worth finding a knowledgeable guide and getting going, because for beginners, Richard says, boletes are the easiest mushrooms of all.


According to Richard Bailey, you have to be careful how you handle boletes when you cook them. They bruise easily under your fingers and fall apart easily in the pan, so to be successful, you have to slice them carefully, cook them for a while on one side, and then carefully flip them over and do the same on the other. Don't undercook them, as in order to have a palatable texture they need to release their juices and dry up. Oh! and if you're looking to make a meal from your harvest, click on over here for an excellent recipe for mushroom lasagna.

3 tablespoons butter
1 medium yellow or white onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 pound boletes, sliced thin
salt to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. When the pan is hot, add the onions and sauté for 5-8 minutes, or until they are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute or so, then add the boletes. Try to arrange them in a single layer across the bottom of the skillet; it's okay if it's not quite big enough. Cook for about 10 minutes without flipping or stirring—or until they release their juices and begin to get dry. Then flip them, and do the same on the other side.

Enjoy hot, tossed over pasta or layered onto toast, or incorporated into the mushroom lasagna mentioned above.


Wellfleet-grown fruit

I have one word for you today: FIGS.

My friend Tracy grew them, on the tall, mittened fig tree in her backyard, the one tucked up against the kitchen window on the north wall. She transplanted the tree all the way from Brewster, despite the fact that everyone told her it would never make it, that it didn't have a chance so close to the water, that it would start to lose its leaves and then a few branches, and eventually, it would peter out and die.

Instead, it flourished. It got so big that now it's taller than the window, taller even than the first story. It reaches up high, almost to the roof. And every fall, around this time, it makes hundreds of figs—fresh, ripe, bursting, Wellfleet-grown fruit.

When I play my cards right, I'm usually lucky enough to get a few. The other day, Tracy gave me four.

I knew immediately how I wanted to eat them, what I wanted to do. I got out a bag of arugula from Lucas at Halcyon Farms, and tossed it with some red wine vinegar, olive oil, mustard, and a bit of salt. I sliced up an orange heirloom tomato, crumbled a round of goat cheese we picked up at a farm stand on our trip to Maine, and tossed both in. Then I sliced the figs in half, plated two salads, and gently laid them on top—two and two.

We have our own fig tree coming along—potted, and still quite petite—but with a little nurturing and a sunny winter window, I'm hoping we'll be eating our own figs some fall soon.

If you know someone who has a fig tree, you can take a cutting and it will root. Ours started out that way—as a tiny shoot with only one leaf, and now it has nine! (I know, still tiny.) If you don't know anyone with a mature tree and you're inspired to plant figs, I know Bayberry Gardens in Truro has a few.


The Local Food Report: Community Green

Kristie Kapp believes in food. She believes in the honesty of it, the simplicity of it, the way it can bring people together into a roaring, celebratory crowd. She believes in growing it—not only for her own family, but also for those who might not have a yard to plant, a sunny balcony, a house.

Kristie works for the Housing Assistance Corporation of Cape Cod, as their agricultural program manager, and all these beliefs fit in with what they're doing just right. They own 45 acres in Sandwich, off Jan Sebastian Road, and one day, they're hoping to turn it into affordable housing centered around a working farm. Tenants could get agricultural job training and work, and the community could come to workshops and to buy food.

They're a few years out from that goal, but in the meantime, they've put in a community garden, and this summer, Kristie got a few plots, to start learning to work this land, see how it responds. The goal was to learn, but also to produce: each plot had a local sponsor, and each week Kristie brought three of the housing shelters the HAC runs two grocery bags each of fresh, homegrown produce.

The produce was a hit at all of them, but at one house in particular—Carriage House in Falmouth—Kristie felt like it did the most good. Once a week Lynn Voccola, an HAC employee who's training to be a chef, volunteered to cook, and helped the families learn what to do with the produce. In the process, she put out some pretty wonderful food. Kristie remembers hearing quite a bit about the ratatouille they made with eggplants and tomatoes and peppers from the garden, and there was another meal, a chicken, fennel, and leek gratin, that had everyone pretty pleased.

It's a small start, she says, but one that fits with all of her beliefs. Next year, she's hoping to do it again, harvesting the strawberries and raspberries and asparagus she planted this year. Eventually, of course, she's hoping they'll be growing so much on the farm there will be plenty to send over to keep the shelters in produce each week. The first tenants move in to the first affordable housing unit in December—so who knows, it could be sooner than we think.


Lynn was kind enough to share her recipe. She says she made it this summer as an experiment because of an over-abundance of fennel from the garden, and it turned out to be a real hit. So here it is, in her words:

1 bulb fennel
2 leeks
1 medium white onion
2 cloves garlic
8 ounces mushrooms, optional
1 tablespoon olive oil
7 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups chicken broth, heated
2 cups half and half, heated
2 and 1/2 cups shredded cheese (Lynn says she has used various combinations of mozzarella, Parmesan, Asiago, Greyere, and Swiss with equal success)
3-4 cups cooked chicken, diced
1 pound penne pasta, cooked al dente
salt to taste
white pepper to taste
nutmeg to taste
1/2 cup bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 13 by 9 inch casserole dish.

Wash, trim, and slice the fennel into 1/2 inch pieces. Trim off the dark green part of the leeks and slice in half lengthwise. Leeks can be filled with dirt and sand, so rinse thoroughly. Then cut the white part into about 1/2 inch pieces. Julienne slice the onions. Finely mince the garlic. Wipe the mushrooms clean and slice them.

Place the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a heated pan. Heat until the butter melts and begins to sizzle. Add the fennel, leeks, onions, garlic, and mushrooms. Cook together on medium heat until they soften and onions are nearly clear. Do not brown!

Add the remaining butter and stir until it melts and is hot. Add the flour to make a roux, mixing it thoroughly with butter and veggies. Allow the roux to cook for a few minutes, but do let let it brown. (This is to be a white roux.)

Slowly add the heated chicken broth, stirring constantly to completely mix it in. Then slowly add the half and half. Continue stirring to mix the sauce and veggies completely and to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The sauce will thicken; then slowly add 2 cups of the cheese mixture, stirring to blend. Season with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg to taste.

Fold in the diced chicken and pasta. Taste for seasonings, and correct as needed. Place the mixture in the casserole dish. Top with remaining 1/2 cup cheese, then sprinkle the breadcrumbs over top. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Enjoy hot!


Quiet & loud

It is fall. That much, I think, we can firmly, officially say. It's there in the wind, the way it blows now in big, gusty shouts, in the strawberry patch in the last tiny berries and the red, faded leaves. It's in the garden, in the brown, crumpled vines and the new spinach patch sending up wavering shoots of green. It's in the leaves, on the windowsill, all at once quiet and loud, suddenly everywhere on display.

But amidst all this, one windowsill, one routine hasn't changed. That's the one you've been seeing all summer, the one where the tomatoes sit. They're still there, trickling in from the garden, nestling onto a dishcloth, craning toward the sun, trying to soak up some heat. They straddle the seasons—July, August, September, October—moving from hot to chilly without missing a hint of a beat.

What we do with them, though, that has changed. The salads and sandwiches and simplicity have been replaced with more careful, more nuanced things. These days they're going to salsa—lemon juice, cilantro, and onion—swirled together in the Cusinart for an early, before dinner treat. It's a routine that goes best, I think, with blue corn tortilla chips and slippers and a good book, but maybe that's just me.


I learned this recipe from Alex one day when he was shorthanded at one of his markets. I went to help out in the kitchen, and my first task was to make a batch of salsa. Of course, the proportions were a bit different that day—they make about five gallons at a time—but the basic idea was the same. The key is to use very fresh ingredients and to keep the texture coarse—this is a fresh salsa, after all, and not meant to be smooth like the kind you put up and store.

1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
1 bunch cilantro (about 1/2 cup packed)
1 pound tomatoes, quartered
juice of 1 lemon (about 1/8 cup)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt

In a food processor, pulse together the onion and cilantro until they are very finely chopped. Add the tomatoes, lemon juice, pepper, and salt, and pulse several more times, until the tomatoes are in coarse chunks. Adjust seasonings to taste and enjoy at room temperature, with corn tortilla chips.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.