Veggie noodles — including those produced locally — gain popularity

  • Each day, Joe Czajkowski’s Lakeside Organics in Hadley produces 8,000 pounds of noodled vegetables — like the butternut squash, above — for stores like Trader Joe’s on equipment Czajkowski developed with local machinist Andre Laflamme. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Brandon Yanez, one of 35 employees at Lakeside Organics, operates a hydraulic press to make zucchini noodles. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • “We’re even seeing a change in what people eat in the last four or five years,” said Joe Czajkowski, owner of Lakeside Organics in Hadley. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Zucchinis wait to be processed into noodles at Lakeside Organics. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Zucchinis wait to be processed into noodles at Lakeside Organics. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A bin filled with freshly cut beet noodles at Lakeside Organics in Hadley. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Lemon garlic seafood butternut squash noodles is an easy recipe that uses veggie noodles. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Joe Czajkowski of Lakeside Organics in Hadley suggests serving the noodles the way you would pasta — with tomato sauce and meatballs, for example, or garlic and seafood, above. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/29/2019 4:49:11 PM

First, sautee minced garlic in a skillet with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Then add fresh butternut squash noodles and toss. After about four minutes, cover the noodles with vegetable stock and bring to a boil.

When the noodles are al dente, drain and serve with Parmesan cheese.

It’s an easy recipe for a delicious meal — so good, it’s easy to forget the dish is made entirely from vegetables. It’s also easy to understand why spiralized and noodled vegetables like zucchini and butternut squash are now stocked in virtually every grocery store.

At least part of that popularity can be attributed to Hadley farmer Joe Czajkowski, owner of Lakeside Organics on Comins Road, which produces a variety of vegetable products including about 8,000 pounds of veggie noodles per day from about 400 acres of farmland. Czajkowski said he was among the first businesses to mass produce fresh veggie noodles.

His farm, under a few different brands including Great Meadow Farm, supplies noodled vegetables to large chain supermarkets including Trader Joe’s throughout the Northeast and Fresh Direct in New York City.

He was watching television one evening in 2015 when an advertisement for a white plastic vegetable spiralizer came on the screen.

“It was the kind of (product) someone would use four or five times and break it,” Czajkowski said. He thought to himself, “‘We could have a real production model of that.’”

Czajkowski connected with Andre Laflamme, a local machinist. Together, they designed and built a machine over about two months that can mass produce veggie noodles by simultaneously spinning and pressing vegetables through a series of custom designed blades — zucchini, butternut squash, beets and sweet potatoes, all of which are grown on the farm.

At first, the machine was operated by hand. But over the years, Czajkowski said it’s been upgraded and is now pneumatically powered.

“Look at how pretty this is. That’s sweet potato,” Czajkowski said, pointing to a bin full of noodled vegetables beneath a long table where employees pressed vegetables with the machine. “The butternut is really pretty. The zucchini is the best seller by far.”

In the next room, stacks of butternut squash noodles could be seen on rolling metal shelves. Bins filled with more squash were in a warehouse next door. The smell of fresh veggies was strong in the air.

Occasionally, Czajkowski said customers call him to say how much they like his products. The phone number for his farm is printed on every package.

“People like them. They want to eat healthy now. They don’t want all the carbs,” Czajkowski said. Comparatively, butternut squash pasta has about “one-sixth of the calories of regular pasta. Zucchini has about one-eighth of the calories. No preservatives. They’re not heavily processed.”

What started as a small part of the farm quickly became a substantial income, Czajkowski said. At one point, his noodling business was growing so fast he couldn’t keep up.

“We were up until midnight running noodles. We had them on cooling racks. We had to start boxing them up at 3:30 in the morning to make it out for the delivery at 6 a.m. to (a distribution center in) Cheshire, Conn.,” Czajkowski said. “We were growing like crazy. It was too good.”

These days, Czajkowski employs 35 people to operate 24 machines, and licenses out about 24 additional machines to area farmers.

“Most noodles, whether it’s at Whole Foods or Market Basket or Trader Joe’s, are made either on machines we run and own, or machines we license to other people,” he said.

Like many farms in the region, Czajkowski’s most recent evolution isn’t the first time he’s adapted to meet ever-changing demands. His grandfather moved to the Pioneer Valley from Poland in the early 1900s and carried over a farming tradition.

“We were a tobacco farm for a lot of years — for generations. The year I was born, in 1958, there were 40,000 acres of tobacco raised in the Connectict River Valley. Now, this year, it’s about 2,800,” he said.

As the tobacco industry declined, the Czajkowskis adapted by diversifying their crops — strawberries, asparagus, rhubarb, blueberries, peaches, carrots, summer and winter squash, zucchini, beets, parsnips, sugar pumpkins, butternut and acorn squash, sweet potatoes and corn, in addition to tobacco.

“Things change. We’re even seeing a change in what people eat in the last four or five years,” Czajkowski said, citing potatoes and sweet corn, which aren’t as popular as they once were, as examples. “We’re seeing the demand for some of that wane a little bit. … They want to eat fresh and they want to eat foods that aren’t that dense in calories.”

Besides diversifying crops, Czajkowski said he adds value to his products to make ends meet.

“If we raise squash, we sell it peeled and diced. If we raise strawberries, we want to retail them or make jam out of them. We want to take it one step further,” he said.

Noodling vegetables was a natural progression. And while Czajkowski said everything he noodles is good, he has a favorite noodled vegetable.

“The sweet potato ones. If you put them on a cookie sheet with a little bit of olive oil and carmelize it and roast it, it’s really wonderful,” said Czajkowski, who usually broils his in the oven for about six or seven minutes. Then he turns them over “until they’re just a little bit crispy.”

When they’re still hot, he drizzles on a little bit of maple syrup or sprinkles brown sugar on top.

“You can do anything you could imagine with a noodle,” he said.

Lemon Garlic Seafood Butternut Squash Noodles

Ingredients:

¼ cup (4 T) unsalted butter

4 garlic cloves, minced

8 cups spiralized butternut squash noodles

1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary

½ tsp. kosher salt

¼ tsp. ground black pepper

2 T fresh lemon juice

2 lbs. frozen mixed seafood

Grated parmesan cheese, for serving

In large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for one minute, stirring constantly.

Thaw the frozen seafood and cook it in butter and garlic. Add the squash, rosemary, salt and pepper; cook five minutes or until the squash noodles are tender, stirring frequently.

Add lemon juice; toss until well combined. Serve the noodles garnished with cheese.

Recipe adapted from foxeslovelemons.com.


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