SIGNS OF FALL! By Robert Neroni

Oct 30th, 2008

Orange, yellow, dark and pale green, red-orange, white and gray are the colors of fall, and they also make up the spectrum of colors representative of the varieties of a popular squash named Cucurbita, better known as pumpkin. We see the bright orange spheres of the most common American variety everywhere by now on porches and in windows, and I for one, welcome the fall for its colors and its flavors that signal for me the time for comfortable traditional recipes.
Native Americans first roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them very simply. But it was the early American colonists who took the first steps toward the Pumpkin pie we know today. They sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey; then baked them in hot ashes. Pumpkins are now grown everywhere in the world, and no surprise, Illinois leads the US production with over 4000 acres planted just for their local manufacturer of canned pumpkin, Libby’s.

The traditional pumpkin is used for its robust fruit and seeds toasted into pepitos, and both seeds and flesh is rich in potassium, fiber, and vitamin A. The flesh can be roasted, grilled, steamed, sautéed, baked, squeezed for juice, and pureed and such variety of uses is very appealing to us chefs. Savory or sweet, I have used the seeds for garnishes, brittles, and sauces, like Romesco, a Spanish style ground nut/seed condiment used with meat and chicken. I use pumpkin seed oil too made from the pressed and toasted seeds in gnocchi and a garnish for apple pie, and even vanilla ice cream. Young sugar pumpkins, peeled seeded, accompany any fall menu just as a steamed or sautéed vegetable side dish.

I would guess that most Americans still use canned pumpkin to make their Thanksgiving pies, because cooking the fresh meat by either roasting or steaming might seem like too much trouble for the results. Home steaming yields a much more delicate flavored puree than the canned counterpart. I still prefer the flavor of the canned pumpkin for pies and find that roasting rather than steaming produces a pretty close flavor profile. Going to the trouble of using fresh pumpkin, I usually make more than needed for pie, so I freeze some for later use. Pumpkin is over 90% water and once thawed it will need to be strained before using as a baking ingredient. I am more likely to use the pumpkin I freeze for pasta, breads, muffins, scones, soup, and ice cream than for pie.

Just remember anything you already do with other varieties of squash you can do with the pumpkin. I am such a fan of Libby’s pie recipe that I rarely stray far, but the recipe for Pumpkin cheese tarts here is worth it. I like chunky pumpkin risotto for a one dish vegetarian dinner, too. And the French toast recipe is Lenore’s that she serves only in the months of October and November! Enjoy!

ROMESCO SAUCE (Spanish topping for chicken or roasted meats)
4 TB EVOO
2 slices white bread, crust removed
3 dried Ancho peppers, soaked, seeded and minced
1 small fresh jalapeno pepper, split in half
3 whole cloves garlic
1 cup peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup roasted pumpkin seeds or pepitos
1/2 cup almonds, roasted
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Salt
1 TB finely chopped fresh parsley leaves Method: In a large sauté pan, over medium heat, add the oil; when the oil is hot, add the bread and fry until golden on each side, about 2 minutes; remove and set aside; in the same pan, add the peppers; sauté for 1 minute and remove from the pan; reserve the oil; in a food processor, combine the peppers and garlic; process until a paste forms; add the reserved fried bread, tomatoes, pepitos, and nuts; process until smooth; add the vinegar, 2 to 3 tablespoons of the reserved oil and season with salt; process for 15 seconds add the parsley and process for 5 seconds; remove and store in an airtight container under refrigeration until ready to use.

PUMPKIN CHEESE TARTSCrust: 2 cups all purpose flour
1/8 tsp sea salt
1/8 tsp cinnamon
8 oz butter, cubed
½ cup sour cream
Filling: 6 oz cream cheese
¼ cup thick pumpkin puree
1 large egg
½ cup brown sugar or maple sugar
½ tsp orange zest, minced
½ cup powdered sugar, unsifted
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground coriander
Method: Place the flour, salt and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl; stir to blend; Cut in butter with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles split peas; stir in the sour cream with a fork; work the dough into a ball. Divide dough into 6 balls for tart size or 12-18 for miniature muffin pan tarts. Refrigerate for 4 hours before using.
Filling: process all of the filling ingredients in a food processor bowl until mixture is smooth and blended. Pat the pastry into bottom and sides of tart pans or muffin pans. Spoon filling into shells; refrigerate for 30 minutes. Adjust rack to lower third of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. Bake 12-18 minutes or until firm. Cool 10 minutes before removing to wire rack. Sift powdered sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkle on tops. Serve room temperature.

PUMPKIN RISOTTO, a vegetarian dinner option
3 TBS EVOO, plus additional as needed
½ cup onions, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup Riesling
½ cup pumpkin puree
5 cups (approximately) pumpkin water, vegetable stock, hot or other favorite stock
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp ground pepper
1 tsp ground coriander
1 ea lemon zested
1 cup Romano cheese, shredded
4 TBS salted butter
Sautéed sweet fresh pumpkin, see recipe Method: place oil in large sauce pan on moderate heat; add onions, garlic and rice – cook till vegetables are aromatic and rice becomes slightly translucent; add wine and cook until it is almost absorbed; add the puree and ½ cup of stock; stir to combine; continue adding ½ cup of stock at a time, stirring to incorporate; wait until each stock addition is absorbed before adding more; when most of the stock has been added, add the salt, pepper, coriander and zest to the risotto with the remaining stock, stirring throughout; fold in the Romano, butter and cooked sugar pumpkin; adjust seasonings.
Pumpkin: 4 TBS salted butter, 2 small sugar pumpkins, peeled and diced (1/2 to 1 inch), dash nutmeg and cardamom –Method: heat butter until frothy; sauté pumpkin till tender. Fold into risotto at last minute and season with more sea salt, pepper, coriander, if needed.

PUMPKIN FRENCH TOAST, a fall favorite of our Omelet 101 class.
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
¾ cup sugar
½ cup pumpkin puree, canned or fresh
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
½ tsp vanilla
½ cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
8 thick slices day-old bread
As needed powdered sugar
5 TBS butter

Method: place eggs, yolk and sugar, pumpkin and pie spice in large bowl, whisk to combine; add vanilla, milk and cream; mix to combine; soak bread slices thoroughly and remove to platter; dust with powdered sugar; place butter in sauté pan and place bread, sugar side down in pan to brown and cook; dust each with additional sugar before turning; add additional butter as needed; serve with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sour cream.
Optional toppings; vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or sour cream