A farmer and his noodles: Local farmer produces healthy ramen alternative made from butternut squash crop

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder

Published: 07-18-2023 2:11 PM

This year the weather seems to be waging a vendetta against farms and orchards here in western Massachusetts. Extreme cold in the winter and spring canceled many area fruits in the bud. Excessive rain in the summer has flooded quite a few fields.

Agriculture is necessary for human survival, but it is not without risk. One clever area farmer, Joe Czajkowski, has figured out how to add to the value of his crops by making them into products he can produce and sell year round.

Czajkowski is based in Hadley but farms about 400 acres spread among the towns of Hadley, Greenfield, Gill and Amherst. He grows both conventional and organic fruits and vegetables.

In an interview last week, I asked him about the history of his farm. “My family has always farmed. That’s all we ever did,” he replied. “My grandfather came over from Poland around 1916.”

When Czajkowski was born in 1958, he told me, “this valley was tobacco,” and tobacco was his family farm’s main crop, along with some cucumbers. Times and crops have changed. The Pioneer Valley tobacco crop is now less than a tenth of what it once was, and farms have adapted.

Today Czajkowski grows strawberries, tomatoes, stone fruits, a small amount of tobacco, Brussels sprouts, black beans, carrots and more. His corn goes into Mi Tierra Tortillas. He supplies a number of educational institutions throughout Massachusetts, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Greenfield school system.

He also works with the Food Bank of Western Mass., leasing part of the Food Bank farm. “We pay the rent in vegetables,” he said with a smile. “They’ve been very nice people to work with.”

One of Czajkowski’s largest crops is butternut squash. He raises a couple of million pounds of this gourd a year, he told me, often more than he can eat and sell.

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About six years ago, he started selling fresh squash “noodles” to stores. He partnered with a machinist who created a noodle cutter; the resulting machine was so successful that Czajkowski sells versions of the cutter to other would-be noodle producers.

He also sells zucchini and beet noodles, but he maintains that butternut squash produces noodles that have “the nicest mouth feel.”

This spring he tried something new: drying the butternut squash noodles.

“When you think about it, older people like my mother (she worked a lot) wouldn’t buy fresh pasta. She would buy it dry,” he recalled.

He developed a four-step, patented process for drying the noodles, which are cut from whole squash. He calls his product “Farmer’s Noodles.”

I asked him about his favorite way to eat the product.

“You can use it any way you use regular pasta, except that you can feel good about eating it,” he laughed. “It’s not really a processed food, like regular pasta. It’s full of vitamins and minerals.”

He recommended the recipe on the back of the noodle box, a vegetable stir fry. I almost tried that with my noodles but in the end opted to combine the squash noodles with an Asian-inspired peanut sauce. The combination worked.

I also tried the noodles plain with just a little butter, salt and pepper. They filled my mouth with the flavor of autumn; they do taste and feel just like butternut squash… and the cooking process (soaking them in boiling water for a couple of minutes) couldn’t be easier. They are very thin so they cook quickly.

Czajkowski produces both conventional and organic versions of the noodles, as well as a couple of soup mixes, one with mushrooms and the other with a pronounced (but not too spicy) coconut-curry flavor.

“Ramen noodles are tasty,” he reminded me, “but if you look at the label, they’re not good for you at all!”

In future, Czajkowski hopes to try making different types of dried vegetable noodles – perhaps carrot, beet and daikon. For the moment, however, the butternut noodles work for him.

“We have so much squash anyway,” he confessed. “That seemed like a good thing to start with.”

He already produces another product I haven’t tried but am eager to: butternut-squash-seed oil. He characterized its flavor as a little nutty, a bit like cashew. And he maintained that it is among the healthiest oils available.

I asked Joe Czajkowski how his products are selling. He admitted that getting them into markets has proven a little tricky.

He has developed a long list of wholesale contacts over the years, but those contacts are in the fresh-produce department of stores. Dried noodles and oil are a different matter, chosen by buyers for the grocery department.

Nevertheless, he is optimistic that these products will ultimately sell themselves. They are currently available at Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, at Atkins Farms in Amherst, from Mass Food Delivery in South Deerfield, and online at farmersnoodles.com.

Farmer’s Noodles with Peanut Sauce

Ingredients:

1 onion, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons oil (peanut is best, but canola or olive will do)

1 cup peanut butter (smooth or chunky, according to your preference)

1 cup water

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 small piece fresh ginger, finely chopped

crushed red pepper to taste (start with 1 teaspoon)

1 package (4 ounces) Farmer’s Noodles

Instructions:

Sauté the onion in the oil until lightly brown. Add all the other ingredients except for the noodles. Experiment with the pepper. You want the sauce fairly hot, but everyone has a different definition of “too hot.”

Cook the sauce for at least 15 minutes over low heat to blend the flavors, stirring frequently. If it becomes too thick, add more water. It should be the consistency of thick cream sauce.

When the sauce is done, pour boiling water over the squash noodles. Let the noodles sit for 2 to 3 minutes; then drain them and place them in a bowl. Blend in about half of the sauce; add more sauce to taste.

You may of course add a few thin raw vegetables to this dish and garnish it with a little cilantro. It’s tasty on its own, however.

Leftover sauce may be stored in the refrigerator for a week or two and eaten with grilled meat, poultry or vegetables.

Serves 6.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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