Omnivorous: The Great Pumpkin | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: The Great Pumpkin 

What Chicago chefs are doing with the locavore-friendly squash this season

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According to U.S. federal agriculture statistics, Illinois is the country's largest producer of pumpkins, with 14,800 acres devoted to the crop in 2007, most of them within a 90-mile radius of downstate Peoria. This bit of good news for locavores made me wonder what local chefs are doing with pumpkin. Mon Ami Gabi's Pumpkin Festival ended on October 29, but there are still many seasonal savories on offer in addition to the ubiquitous pumpkin creme brulees, cheesecakes, cupcakes, and other sweets—not to mention cocktails with names like the Smashing Pumpkin.

The five-course pumpkin dinner ($42) available through November 2 at Va Pensiero (1566 Oak, Evanston, 847-475-7779) includes several prime examples. Chef-owner Jeff Muldrow's feast starts with warm pumpkin salad featuring oblong pie pumpkins from the Sustainable Greens Farms in Three Rivers, Michigan. Seeded, skinned, sliced, and dusted with cinnamon and cumin, the flesh is roasted, then tossed with frisee, piled atop polenta crostini, and dressed with sherry vinegar and olive oil pureed with toasted pumpkin seeds. Smaller, rounder pumpkins, roasted and finely diced, go into risotto with calamari and manila clams, crispy shallots, and tarragon. A pasta dish—pumpkin gnocchi with Gorgonzola cream and crispy battered fried sage—combines mashed pumpkin with Idaho and Yukon Gold potatoes. "Pumpkin and Gorgonzola just scream autumn," Muldrow says. To complement grilled balsamic-marinated venison with black currant sauce, the chef makes a spiced relish of diced raw pumpkin sauteed with onions, garlic, hot pepper, and a little ground fennel seed, though he admits he'll use firmer red kuri squash if it's available. Dessert is a butternut squash rice pudding with candied ginger, almond tuile, and raspberries.

Only one of the dozen or so courses on the latest signature tasting menu ($95) at Lockwood (17 E. Monroe, 312-917-3404) involves pumpkin, but its presentation is a dramatic chemistry demonstration. Executive chef Phillip Foss's Autumn Aromas begins with an apple-stock-based "tea" seasoned with clove, cinnamon, star anise, and bay leaf. At the table, the tea is poured into a hollowed-out pumpkin lined with dry ice, producing billows of fall-fragrant steam. This is all to enhance a pureed pumpkin soup, enriched by sage-infused brown butter and served tableside with tiny mushroom dumplings and croutons drizzled with pumpkin-seed oil.

The Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout is the essential ingredient in the spiced pumpkin soup with olive-oil croutons and creme fraiche ($8) at Wave (644 N. Lake Shore Dr., 312-255-4460). Executive chef Kristine Subido makes her own, toasting cumin, coriander, black peppercorns, saffron, rose petals, and lavender individually, then combining them all and grinding the mixture. She sprinkles pumpkin chunks with ras el hanout, salt, pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil before slow-roasting them in the oven. Next she sautes shallots and garlic, adds the pumpkin, a little more ras el hanout, carrot, turmeric, and a half-and-half measure of chicken stock and water. Simmered for an hour, the soup is pureed until smooth, finished with a touch of heavy cream, and garnished with brioche croutons, creme fraiche mixed with orange-blossom honey, and a few sprigs of cilantro.

Pumpkin ravioli is practically as common as pumpkin pie, but the cappellacci di zucca ($14) at Piccolo Sogno (464 N. Halsted, 312-421-0077) is special. Chef and co-owner Tony Priolo uses four or five different kinds of pumpkin—among them kabocha, Long of Naples, and delicata—from Green Acre Farms in Indiana. Roasted and pureed, the flesh is blended with crumbled amaretto cookies, mostarda di cremona (mixed fruit candied in mustard syrup), nutmeg, cinnamon, a little Parmesan, and ricotta, then stuffed into pasta shaped like a priest's hat, briefly boiled, and simply sauced with brown butter, sage, and walnuts. Priolo says the recipe is a classic from Emilia-Romagna.

Mostarda and amaretti also turn up in a Franco-Italian appetizer new executive chef Martial Noguier has created at Cafe des Architectes (20 E. Chestnut, 312-324-4063). His Parmesan gnocchi ($10) showcases small Nichols Farm & Orchard pumpkins from the Green City Market, diced, sauteed, and even juiced: Noguier's sauce consists of a reduction of pumpkin and orange juices flavored by star anise, fennel seed, and ginger. The gnocchi are served with rock shrimp, sauteed pumpkin, finely diced mostarda, parsley, julienned sage, toasted cracked marcona almonds, crumbled amaretti, and salt and pepper, all garnished with Parmesan shavings and some more amaretti crumbs. "I call it elegant comfort food," says Noguier.

Executive chef Mark Mendez gives Wisconsin pumpkins a Latin twist for his pumpkin empanadas ($7) at Carnivale (702 W. Fulton, 312-850-5005). After roasting chunks with cinnamon, star anise, and cardamom, he purees them with a little brown sugar and fresh goat cheese, then forms and deep-fries the empanadas, which are served with spicy coleslaw. He says that pumpkin pie inspired the special, available through Thanksgiving.

At Pops for Champagne (601 N. State, 312-266-7677), executive chef Andrew Brochu's entree of venison with pumpkin puree, braised pecans, and huckleberries ($16) began with his desire to have pumpkin puree—the way he prefers the fruit—on the fall menu. He cooks the roasted pumpkin with heavy cream, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon, then blends it with more cream and butter and passes it through a chinois. His goal is a perfectly smooth texture—that's the way chef Grant Achatz taught him at Alinea.

Troy Graves, executive chef at Tallulah (4539 N. Lincoln, 773-942-7585), toasts and grinds pumpkin seeds as fine as flour for his pumpkin-seed-crusted fluke with sweet potato puree, boar bacon, Tuscan kale, and honey-verjus emulsion ($25), but his real tribute to autumn's iconic squash is grilled prawns with stuffed baby pumpkin, chanterelles, brussels sprouts, and cipollini onions ($21). After scooping the seeds out of roasted, cooled mini pumpkins, he stuffs them with the other vegetables, sauteed with shallots, garlic, and a little wine. Plated with the sweet shrimp, the earthy pumpkins get a final flourish of maple-miso sauce. "It tastes just like butterscotch candy," Graves says.v

Share your own pumpkin recipes with other readers this week at our blog the Food Chain.

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