It’s now that Most Wonderful Time of the year in New England: early fall. The farm stands still offer up the last fresh corn of the season, bursting with sweetness; the last fresh tomatoes of the season, round and juicy; and without a freeze, the basil plants are still yielding up their best – but to this mix they’re now adding the glorious treat of winter squash.
The leaves are starting to blaze with color – the reds of the sugar maples launching fire into the sky.
The days are warm and sunny, the nights bring on a chill.
New England cooks are warming up the roasting pans, the cocottes, the slow cookers, and still the grills are going.
The National Costume of New England is manifesting on the streets: shorts, loafers, and long-sleeved shirts and light jackets.
The Wild Horse Wind has been blowing and lashing Huey, who is old enough to know better, into extending challenges to all comers – paddock races and bucking contests.
The long shadow cast by Johnny Appleseed over western Massachusetts brings us acres and acres of gnarled, twisting trees, fully loaded with ripe red fruit, ready to fall off into the hand.
Festivals and harvest fairs are breaking out in every small town and rural district, filling the air with the scent of popcorn and grilling meat.
The corn mazes are at a state of perfection.
Everywhere you turn, you find a roadside stand selling the National Fall Flower of New England: the mum. In reds, and oranges, and whites, but – mostly – in yellows. Three for ten dollars, plant them now, and they’ll overwinter and bring a blast of color to the garden next year too.
The pumpkin patches have erupted. Beyond the traditional pumpkin patches that one encounters elsewhere in the country – with massive ripe orange gourds begging to be carved into a frightening face and lit from within – there are uncountable types of other decorative gourdes, enough to make Martha Stewart swoon with envy. And the culinary squash, too, has arrived. Giant Blue Hubbards. Sugar Pumpkins. Delicatas. Butternuts. Acorns. Kabochas. Kuris. Dumplings. Turbans. Buttercups. Carnivals. Bins of them at every major farm stand. Crates of them loaded onto the paneled farm trucks rattling down the roads. Flat bed trailers piled high with every sort of pumpkin known to Man. Heaps of decorative Indian corn, wired for hanging on the doorposts. Straw bales, corn shooks, all ready for creating a Festive Fall Display on the front lawn.
Everyone does it.
And so it was that Roy and I made our Annual Mum and Gourd Run this weekend. It is my habit to kill two birds with one stone, buy buying a massive quantity of beautiful winter squash…and then storing it by heaping it decoratively about the house. My Interior Decor shrinks by the month. Of course, we also have to get the mums (three for $10)…and then there’s the vitally important difference between Inside Pumpkins and Outside Pumpkins. Inside pumpkins are there to be eaten, by us. Outside pumpkins are there to be stolen by degenerate hipsters, or eaten by the squirrels. Mums are to stay on the porch all season, but – and this is important – MUST be tossed out before the hard freezes set in consistently. Otherwise, they freeze onto the porch and will still be there in the spring, looking vastly the worse for wear.
Roy is a tremendously good sport about all of this. I don’t know whether he cares that the porch has pumpkins and mums. But he knows it’s important to me, and he hires himself along as the Brawn.
Besides. It’s pumpkin and apple season and the other thing this means in New England is CIDER. Specifically, Cider Donuts. As they say in France, the specialite de la region. So as we carouse from farm stand to farm stand in the quest for the perfect squash and mums, Roy is on the quest for the perfect Cider Donut. It is at our last stop that he sees the Holy Grail. Not only do they have homemade Cider Donuts…but this farm stand is also one of the neighborhood’s Sugar Shacks – source of all things sweet and mapley. Which means they also have Maple Soft Serve.
As I execute the purchase of approximately 80 pounds of winter squash, Roy discovers that the marriage of the Cider Donut and the Maple Soft Serve is one that was surely made in heaven. And, because he is amazing, he must share this with me. Right now. Despite the fact that my hands are coated in earth that has rubbed off from the hundreds of squash I am inspecting carefully for breaks in the skin and bruises. So, bless his heart, he breaks off a piece of the donut, dips it into the soft serve, and holds it out for me to eat from his hand. And here I thought all that time spent teaching him how to feed treats to Huey was wasted.
He was right. It was insane, this combination.
Come to New England and find out for yourself. In the meantime, here’s what we had for dinner last night.
Roasted Sausage and Squash
a good solid pound and a half (or more) of winter squash of your choice, peeled, seeded, and cut into small chunks.
2 big tart apples like Paula Reds, peeled, cored, and cut into smaller chunks than you cut the squash
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 lb chicken sausages, fried up and cut into slices about a half-inch thick
a head of garlic, broken into cloves, and peeled
3 T olive oil (I use the butternut squash seed oil from Zingermans)
palmful of chopped fresh rosemary
a generous tablespoon of chopped fresh sage
short palmful of chopped fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste
generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar
Heat oven to 450°F. Toss everything but the vinegar together, and load up into a large roasting pan that has been generously greased. I usually need two roasting pans. Roast until squash is tender about 30 minutes. Drizzle with vinegar. Serves 4.