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Farming out the Thanksgiving feast

More customers are turning to local farmstands for prepared dishes — even meals — for the holiday

Todd Heberlein prepares cranberry chutney at Volante Farms in Needham.
Todd Heberlein prepares cranberry chutney at Volante Farms in Needham.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Don’t tell anyone in Roberta Paglia’s multigenerational family, but she has a secret.

All those delicious side dishes she serves every Thanksgiving — the butternut squash; the perfectly seasoned gravy; the wild mushroom stuffing; the quinoa salad; the traditional mashed potatoes; the not-so-traditional mashed potatoes infused with horseradish, parsley, chives, and sour cream; the tenderloin she offers for anyone who might prefer beef to turkey?

She doesn’t actually make them all herself.

But she sure knows how to make it appear that she does.

“I shape the stuffing by hand into a casserole dish, so it looks like I did it all from scratch,” she admitted recently.

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Actual credit for the mushroom stuffing — and about half the other side dishes gracing Paglia’s Needham table on Thanksgiving Day — goes to Todd Heberlein, executive chef at Volante Farms in Needham.

Paglia is part of a growing trend of enthusiastic cooks who see nothing wrong with turning to their local farmstands — and the farmstands’ high-end professional kitchen staff — for a little help on America’s day of feasting. Some, like Paglia, use prepared foods like the mushroom stuffing to augment their own efforts; others purchase the whole meal outright.

At Smolak Farms in North Andover, retail operations manager Tina Claydon says that she is seeing a 15 percent increase in the sale of Thanksgiving foods this year over previous years. “People come to us because they have the desire to serve really good locally grown produce, but not spend a couple of days in the kitchen doing meal prep.”

Claydon says her customers tend not to stray from the very same dishes that have graced Thanksgiving tables for decades. On all other days, Smolak Farms customers are happy to explore a diversity of flavors and cuisines.

“But what people really look forward to on Thanksgiving are the flavors that take them back to their childhood,” said Claydon, who as a native of northern England is herself relatively new to the Thanksgiving tradition. “They’re looking for mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce. Basic good homestyle foods without any flourishes or unusual flavors.”

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It’s a sentiment echoed by Kerri Wimberly at Wilson Farm in Lexington.

“All of our most popular Thanksgiving dishes are traditional,” Wimberly declared. “It’s not that people don’t know how to cook these foods; they’d just rather spend their time doing other things. They want to spend time on the holiday with their family instead of being in the kitchen. It takes a long time to make a full Thanksgiving meal.”

At Gerard Farm in Marshfield, owner Mark Gerard uses a cement mixer to make stuffing for Thanksgiving turkeys.
At Gerard Farm in Marshfield, owner Mark Gerard uses a cement mixer to make stuffing for Thanksgiving turkeys.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

The change has been incremental over the years, said Wimberly.

“Take butternut squash. Decades ago you’d buy the squash, peel it, cook it. Then you could buy squash that was already cut and peeled to save time. And now you can buy the whole dish [at $7.49 per pound] already made. It’s the same product, the same butternut squash. It’s just more common now to buy it ready to serve.”

Heberlein, at Volante Farms, says his customers are “split down the middle between people who need traditional things and won’t deviate, and those who are looking for variety. So we have both. Stuffing, mashed potatoes, but more adventurous options also.” Heberlein has been busy this month cooking up vats of his special cranberry chutney, made with ginger grown on the farm and then candied.

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Susan McCabe, part of the third generation of Gerards to run Gerard Farm in Marshfield, says it is family lore how her grandmother pioneered the idea of selling pre-roasted turkeys back in the 1950s, taking a cue from the newly emerging popularity of TV dinners. “She thought, ‘If women find it convenient to buy frozen dinners for their families, why not a whole Thanksgiving turkey?’ ” McCabe recounted recently.

If the idea of buying a pre-roasted turkey for Thanksgiving was revolutionary at the time, it has certainly reached the mainstream 60 years later. Several area farmstands have begun offering complete Thanksgiving meal kits, taking the burden of estimating amounts and counting out side dishes off the customer and instead just providing a preset menu ready to go.

“You don’t have to do anything,” said McCabe. “We mash the potatoes. We peel the squash. We bake the pies. Meal kits come in a small version and a large version, and one or the other will fit just about every family’s Thanksgiving needs. Place an order, bring it home, heat it up, less than an hour. Not like our grandmothers who spent all day in the kitchen.” Prices range from $130 for a meal suitable for 6 to 7 people to $239 for a gathering of 16 to 17.

Even those not joining family and friends for a feast seem to hanker for the traditional flavors of the day, said McCabe. At Gerard Farm, the single-serving Thanksgiving meal kit (a bargain at $8.39) has been popular with customers who plan to eat alone.

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June D. Flood and Jo Newman prepare pies at Smolak Farms.
June D. Flood and Jo Newman prepare pies at Smolak Farms. David L Ryan/Globe Staff

“As a chef, I love being able to help people make things a little easier,” said Heberlein. “At Thanksgiving in particular, people are stressed, panicked, worried, overwhelmed. If you come to us, you can simply check it off your list. We’ve got you covered.”

Still, even Heberlein admits that when it’s time for his own Thanksgiving feast, it’s more important to him to have a few old favorites on his plate than a wide variety of new tastes. “I like making tons of different things, but I am the most happy if I have a plate with mashed potatoes, mushroom stuffing, and dark meat turkey drowned in gravy,” he remarked.

“Buying prepared foods for Thanksgiving means you can spend time with your loved ones rather than in the kitchen,” McCabe pointed out. “Sit down next to all those people you usually call or text with and have a face-to-face conversation.”

Thanksgiving meal kits at Smolak Farms range from $80 for 4 to 6 people to $175 for 12 to 14. www.smolakfarms.com. At Wilson Farm, a meal kit for 6 costs $125. www.wilsonfarm.com. Volante Farms does not offer meal kits per se, preferring that customers choose their own side dishes. www.volantefarms.com. For more about Gerard Farm, go to www.gerardturkeyfarm.com.

Volante Farms Executive Chef Todd Heberlein makes cranberry chutney at the farmstand, with his homegrown ginger.
Volante Farms Executive Chef Todd Heberlein makes cranberry chutney at the farmstand, with his homegrown ginger. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
The cooks at Gerard Farm are experts at preparing Thanksgiving turkeys.
The cooks at Gerard Farm are experts at preparing Thanksgiving turkeys. David L Ryan/Globe Staff
And for dessert? Pie from Smolak Farms.
And for dessert? Pie from Smolak Farms.David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.