Feasting From Now to New Year's

Published November, 2008

Fresh-from-the-earth dishes are central to this farm family’s holiday

Craig and Sara Jane Underwood are farmers, but first and foremost they are parents to Suzannah and Megan and grandparents to Laird, 3, and Luke, 7 months. Though both [are] in their late sixties, they are far from retirement. Passionate about continuing their family business and exposing kids of all ages to healthy produce and a healthy lifestyle, they directly connect folks, both inside and outside their family, with the food they consume. It comes as no surprise that "fresh" is the order of the day for the Thanksgiving table.

Some of Mrs. Underwood’s favorite holiday dishes are spinach salad with persimmons, green bean salad with pomegranate seeds, and butternut squash with cranberries, most of which are harvested on Underwood Family Farms. "I like serving these recipes at the holidays or anytime for that matter because they are healthy, beautiful, and festive as well as easy to prepare," she says.

In order to spread the couple's message, Craig Underwood, a fourth-generation farmer, has become a man willing to use nontraditional means, far different from his father’s and grandfather’s conservative school of farming. Underwood Family Farms  has not only an animal center geared toward teaching young children, two produce stands in Somis and Moorpark, California, and an annual Fall Harvest Festival, but the husband and wife team transformed the business into a year-round "pick-your-own" destination. Kids and their parents and grandparents can get outright messy in the dirt and learn about the source of the food they eat.

"You can come out and get a feel for the land," says Mr. Underwood. "You can actually harvest the food that you are eating." This is extremely beneficial for young kids, adds Mrs. Underwood. "Kids who come out and pick their own will generally eat what they pick. They become invested in it. But if they go to the store, they may or may not eat their fruits and vegetables," she says.

Growing produce in Southern California gives the Underwoods a more diverse palette of produce then growing in the colder parts of the country. Their autumn produce includes fresh carrots, beets, lettuces, spinach, cilantro, arugula, tomatoes, and peppers. They also carry varieties of gourds, winter squash, pumpkins, and Indian corn.

One of her top choices for beloved fall produce is the pumpkin, and Mrs. Underwood is known as a local pumpkin expert. "We grow all our own pumpkins," she says, everything from Sugar Babies to Big Macs. They have even grown gourds that weigh as much as 400 pounds.

For Mrs. Underwood, the vegetable is a hallmark of the holidays with dishes like pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup or roasted pumpkin. While Luke and Laird are not old enough to help their grandmother in the kitchen, Laird is already expressing an interest in the farm’s fresh fruit and vegetables, such as broccoli, a favorite for its resemblance to little trees.

"Working on the farm," says Mrs. Underwood, who encouraged her children to choose their own paths. "The kids learn their limits, so I hope the boys will spend summers working the land or the farmers' markets, like my daughters did. I’d like to see our farm continue, whether or not it remains a family business. I don’t care what direction the boys take, as long as they are happy with what they are doing."

Green Bean Salad With Pomegranate Seeds
Jane Underwood's green beans are perfect finger food for toddlers

"The whole tender cooked green beans can be eaten as finger food by toddlers, and the bright-colored pomegranate seeds provide interest for them," says Sara Jane Underwood, of Underwood Family Farms, of Camarillo, Calif. The dressing can be made ahead and refrigerated, easing the cooking load on Thanksgiving Day.

2 pounds tender young green beans, stem ends trimmed
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds

1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 cup safflower oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons white vinegar
3/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Cook beans in boiling water until tender crisp, about 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and submerge in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking and preserve the green color. Drain again and pat dry. Beans can be prepared ahead and refrigerated.
2. To make the dressing, whisk together all the ingredients until well blended.
3. To serve, toss beans with dressing. Arrange in serving dish and garnish with pomegranate seeds. Can be served at room temperature or chilled.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish.

Spinach Salad With Persimmons
Sara Jane Underwood makes spinach salad with a kick of sweet persimmons and savory goat cheese

Although Sara Jane Underwood generally uses fresh spinach from her farm, she has adapted this recipe to use bagged spinach, which is easier for parents and grandparents to use during the rushed holiday season. The dried cranberries and nuts provide a nice contrast to the fresh spinach. "The slices of Fuyu persimmon are colorful and crisp like an apple to add crunchy appeal," she says.

1 bag baby spinach, washed
1 to 2 Fuyu persimmons, cored and sliced into 1-inch thick slivers
1 small sweet onion sliced thinly
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup toasted pecans or walnuts
Crumbled goat cheese to taste

3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
Salt, freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Whisk olive oil and vinegar in a bowl to blend. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
2. Add spinach, persimmons, onion, cranberries, and walnuts to a bowl. Drizzle salad with dressing and toss to coat. Divide salad among plates and top each salad with goat cheese to taste.

Yield: Serves 4.

Pumpkin Soup With Ginger
An almost-sweet pumpkin soup, with a touch of ginger, perfect for autumn dinners, especially for Thanksgiving

Underwood Family Farms is known for their pumpkin harvest so it comes as no surprise that Sara Jane Underwood of Underwood Family Farms, of Camarillo, Calif., serves pumpkin soup for Thanksgiving. “Our life is consumed by the Fall Harvest Festival, especially by pumpkin picking,” she says. After all the hard work, the family loves to enjoy the fruits of their labor and her "pumpkin soup has a mild sweet taste which could be sipped at room temperature from a cute little child's cup to make it a fun experience."

One 3 to 4 pound pumpkin
3 tablespoons butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon Madras curry powder
4 cups chicken stock
4 1/2 teaspoons chopped crystallized ginger
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 tart apples, peeled, cored and chopped
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 to 2 tablespoons brown sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Rinse a 3 to 4 pound pumpkin and cut in half vertically with a large, heavy knife. With a spoon, scoop out and discard seeds (or reserve for toasting). Rub the inside with about 1 teaspoon vegetable oil or butter and lay, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Bake until soft, 40 to 60 minutes. Scoop out flesh, place in a bowl, and mash with a potato masher. Set aside 11/2 to 2 cups of the mashed pumpkin, reserving any additional for a later use such as pumpkin bread.
2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan and add the onions, sautéing until soft. Add the flour and curry powder, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring. Slowly add 2 cups of the chicken stock, stirring constantly with a whisk.
3. Add the ginger, lemon juice, mashed pumpkin, apples, and cinnamon. Simmer, uncovered, for ten minutes.
4. Puree in small batches in food processor or in the pan with an immersion blender.
5. If blending in a food processor, return puree to the saucepan and slowly add remaining stock until desired thickness is attained (it can be like a heavy cream, or more like a potato soup, depending on personal preference). Add brown sugar to taste and serve warm.

Yield: Serves 6.