Thursday, October 18, 2012
Chef Foster: Don’t let pumpkin scare you;
cook early, often with this versatile squash
Let’s talk pumpkin. I don’t mean the Halloween jack o’ lanterns of our youth or even the faded orange backdrop of some grade-school Thanksgiving cornucopia still hanging on your parent’s fridge. I want to consider the vibrant squash that has called the Americas its home since the beginning of time. (And up until recently, absolutely not an answer to that seasonal trivia question: What is the biggest vegetable in Farmer Brown’s field?)
When was the last time you actually cooked with fresh pumpkin? Does the smell of fresh-baked pumpkin pie, replete with exotic and sensual spices, evoke Thanksgiving? Or can you envision late-summer soup (just as the nights turn cool), jazzed up with some of those very same mid-November flavors? Can you see past the seasons and consider pumpkin in the same family as squash, but with a versatility that transcends even the lofty patty pan squash of late summer?
Pumpkin is a member of the marrow (squash) family and is native to the Americas. Grown for its versatility, it was generally dried and ground into flour by Native Americans. They were also known to roast it, scoop seeds and pulp out, and throw only the tough outer shell and stem away. The seeds became a snack for later Americans, and as the country continued to grow, the pumpkin came along for the ride being consumed as a vegetable, fruit and even an alcoholic beverage.
High in many nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin A and C, protein in the pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and a source for that slumber inducer L-tryptophan, the pumpkin plays second or third fiddle to Big Tom. But when you sit down to dinner this year, keep in mind that the dinner may go down easier if you include pumpkin in several forms; it’s full of fiber and it’s a diuretic.
I praise pumpkin earlier than I should because I have started to embrace it. I can’t stand pumpkin pie, too saccharine and mushy. But those pies are often made with a bland puree filled with spices, sugar and condensed milk. Try a “fresh” pumpkin pie by roasting the whole pumpkin a’ la butternut squash and caramelizing the natural sugars present in all squash. Less refined sugar, more pumpkin taste and even a better, richer texture after you puree the roasted pulp.
My wife made pumpkin muffins with a streusel top. She used an organic canned pumpkin puree which more closely resembled real pumpkin. I ate four. One of my Advanced Techniques students at Sullivan University/Lexington attempted to “go outside the box” with her dessert and made a pumpkin rice pudding with a crisp apple salad and cranberry salad. It was a mess of a plate, weakened by some poor choices, but the essence, the idea, the germ was dead on. Mix ingredients that grow together, in the same region, in the same season and you have a surefire hit.
Better yet take the pumpkin completely out of the dessert field and stuff a savory version into ravioli or dumplings. Curry the pumpkin for soup and as a stand-alone for Southeast Asian coconut and ginger curry dish over fragrant jasmine rice spiced with Serrano chilies. Roast slices of pumpkin and sprinkle them with sea salt and a touch of good balsamic vinegar for a side dish. If you are a risotto fan, pumpkin is a great partner for roasting with shallots, cubing the chunks and finishing the pumpkin risotto with mascarpone and parmesan.
Don’t ask why the pumpkin got so far off track, why it has become a vehicle for frightening young children and eventually melting into a blackish orange puddle on your porch come mid-November. It may have started as far back as the Pilgrims who topped it, scarped out the seeds, filled it with milk, and spices, and roasted it, a kind of Frankenstein pumpkin pie and future jack o’ lantern. This year let’s give the pumpkin back some dignity and cook early and often with the noble native. With millions grown every year there will be plenty left for Oct. 31.
Some of my favorite ways to use the pumpkin:
• Roasted with Jamaican jerk spice
• Pumpkin and greens callaloo, a Caribbean soup with greens and peppercorns
• Risotto with roasted pumpkin, and tomatoes finished with gorgonzola
• Pumpkin bagels, breads, muffins, coffeecakes and, yes donuts, especially Harris pumpkin donuts that used to appear in the fall in New England
• Of course you have pumpkin spiced lattes which in their own perverse way pay the ultimate homage to the pumpkin; coffee flavor (albeit a return to over sugared pumpkin pie, a way to have pie and coffee together.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s Restaurant, and a restaurant owner.