It’s been an amazing growing season in New England. An abundance of spring rain followed by lots of summer sunshine has yielded plenty of earthly delights. Now it’s time to get down to the business of eating.
Making use of our New England crops is the perfect way to properly honor Thanksgiving, a holiday that’s all about giving thanks for a good harvest. Here are our recommendations on how to make the most of what’s grown, raised, and made on the North Shore.
Friendsgiving—as the holiday is known among my Salem crew—usually means a creative table that includes seafood and signature dishes inspired by various regional cuisines. Sometimes there’s nary a potato in sight. But if you (or your great-aunt Helen) tend toward the traditional, you can let seasonal vegetables guide your way, says Carolyn Grieco, who teaches cooking classes at Appleton Farms in Ipswich.
“A lot of people are looking for inspiration. They want to be guided and not stray too far,” says Grieco, who teaches a popular class in November that offers a twist on the traditional. Her class menu includes herb-roasted turkey; cranberry-pear relish; sausage, apple, and herb stuffing; and onion gratin made with a variety of onions, shallots, and leeks. Plus, there’s plenty of turkey talk and shared advice on how to prep in advance for a stress-free holiday.
“In New England, our short seasons are an advantage, with different produce peaking at different times,” says Grieco. “We are so season driven.” Let the food do the talking, she recommends, by simply roasting root vegetables, allowing their earthy flavors to shine.
How do we best eat seasonally? Miranda Russell, who runs 120-acre Russell Orchards in Ipswich with her husband, Doug, says to think about what’s available right now near you. If it’s October, forgo asparagus, and in December, don’t eat strawberries. “We’re so lucky that we live in a day and age that we have access to food from all over the world, but if we’re trying to be mindful of the environment and the impact of shifting food long distances, small steps of change are good,” says Russell. With practice, you’ll get in the habit of choosing seasonal items even in the grocery store, she adds.
Essex County is home to many farms that feature, not just delicious crops, but also beautiful scenery and long histories. Take North Andover’s Smolak Farms, where parts of the historic homestead are 300 years old. “I don’t consider myself an owner. I’m a steward of a property that was here millennia before me,” says Michael Smolak. Many locals have stories of visiting the preserved 107 acres as a kid, and sampling their cider donuts. The farm sold about 400,000 donuts last year as people formed lines. “When they’re warm, they draw attention,” says Smolak.
Every year, about 13,000 children tour the farm as part of a special education program. During their visit, the kids learn about animals, gardening techniques, and the habitat and function of local bees. “The more you bring kids and teach them early, the better it is for them,” says Smolak. “Maybe we’ll get some farmers out of it. At least, I’m hoping.”
Bread + Cheese
Using local ingredients goes beyond just vegetables. The North Shore is also a resource for handmade Italian cheeses thanks to places like Wolf Meadow Farm, owned by Luca and Christina Mignogna. Luca, an Italian-born cheesemaker and chef who has worked in some of the world’s finest restaurants, supervises the farm’s small-batch production of burrata, mozzarella, caciotta, ricotta, and more. Having teamed up with Appleton Farm, Great Wolf now makes its cheese with milk from Appleton’s grass-fed cows. It’s a match made in heaven.
“You have the pleasure of getting something you’d have in Italy right here. We imported the cheesemaker, not the cheese,” says Christina Mignognaof her husband, who also teaches cheesemaking techniques at Appleton. “The cows are treated with so much love and have their own personalities. It shows in the quality of the fresh cheese.”
For freshly baked bread or unforgettable desserts, there is no place like A&J King Bakery in Salem. The bakery works with produce from Cider Hill and Brooksby Farms to make seasonal tarts and cakes for pre-orders. Its multigrain bread, made with local grains, is ideal for a healthier stuffing. “It’s a huge hit, along with our whole wheat,” says retail manager Tara Alton. But remember, they stop taking orders the week before Thanksgiving. Other than that, it’s first come, first served.
Spice it Up
Karen Scalia of Salem Food Tours says her favorite spices for Thanksgiving are sage and freshly grated nutmeg. Choosing the right cinnamon is important as well. “For my savory dishes, Ceylon. For baking, Saigon,” she notes. “The nice thing about Saigon cinnamon is it’s naturally sweet.” Touting the wares of Salem Spice on Pickering Wharf, Scalia can’t stop with her list. “OK, two more. Pepper: Love it coarsely ground. And ginger.” And don’t forget spice for your cocktails, she notes. Add ginger and salt or cinnamon and sugar to the rim of your favorite cocktail or cider.
“Cider makes a lot of sense when paired with savory Thanksgiving dishes,” says Al Snape, owner of Far From The Tree Cider in Salem. It’s similar to having a bite of tangy cranberry sauce after heavy gravy. One sipping option is Bog, a cider made from sweet apples and tart Cape Cod cranberries with rosemary, sage, and thyme. Another is Apple of My Chai, a cider made with black tea, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, and orange peel. Keeping it relatively local, Snape and his wife, Denise, are experimenting with heirloom apple varieties at their orchard in Maine.
In Ipswich, Russell Orchards serves up local fruit wines and hard ciders inside its cozy tasting room. All are made on the premises from the orchard’s own fruit. In 2015, with a surplus of pumpkins, the farm began making pumpkin spice wine. “You can only feed the horses and chickens so many pumpkins,” says owner Doug Russell, laughing. Try the farm’s recipe that combines their hot mulled cider and Pumpkin Spice wine.
Now, let’s talk turkey. Instead of choosing from frozen birds stacked high in the grocery store, visit Raymond’s Turkey Farm in Methuen for a preordered White Holland turkey. “Here, they’re raised like they used to be years ago, with no hormones or antibiotics,” says Jim Rischer, whose father, Raymond, started the farm in 1950. The bird will likely be more expensive than a grocery store version; however, Rischer says, “if you ask anyone who’s had one of ours, they’ll tell you there’s quite a difference.” Half of the 20,000 turkeys sold by the farm each year are for Thanksgiving. If a whole bird isn’t your thing, turkey is perfect for pot pies and soups.
Chef Daniel Gursha of Ledger restaurant in Salem is so into local ingredients that in addition to the fresh produce supplied to Ledger by about a dozen local farms, he also gets excited about fall foraging. “You can walk around the woods and get hickory or walnuts during the late summer or fall,” he says.
Come Thanksgiving time, roasted acorn squash is Gursha’s jam. After he adds maple syrup and Urfa, a Turkish chili that has notes of raisin and coffee, his squash are both grilled and roasted. “I get some color on them and a little bit of smoke and cook the glaze on there, so that it’s boiling right into the meat. Grilled acorn squash is a really seasonal, local dish,” says the chef. “Think about it: You have maple and squash, which are all things from this area.”
Head chef Paul Callahan of Brine and Ceia Kitchen + Bar, both in Newburyport, says you should never underestimate a quality turkey. For quality produce, he only has to go down the road to Tendercrop Farm in Newbury. “It’s good Americana,” says Callahan, adding that fall is his favorite time to cook. “There’s just so much more to eat and so many more techniques. It’s more comfort based.”
Though corn is often thought of as a highlight of summer, it’s versatile and great in porridges and puddings. Cold nights make it even more delicious. “I think it’s underused,” says Callahan. “There is so much more to do than boiling.”
Brenden Crocker of Black Arrow in Manchester-by-the-Sea gets hyperlocal. He uses turnips, squash, parsnips, and carrots right out of his father’s garden about an eighth of a mile from the Central Street restaurant. “He leaves it on his picnic table for us,” says Crocker.
No matter what new spin we put on it, eating locally connects us to the area’s agrarian past. It’s a New England tradition and contributes to our shared sense of place.