March 8, 2014
Lords of the Gourds — Chicago chefs elevate pumpkins to a whole new delicious level
October 22, 2013 5:54PM
If pumpkin were to receive a report card, it might say: “Not performing up to its full potential.”
Well, through no fault of the beleaguered gourd, most of the “pumpkin-flavored” items filling coffee shops and store shelves have no pumpkin in them at all! Instead, they are filled with cinnamon and nutmeg, the spices of pumpkin pie that some associate with the season.
Pumpkin can do so much more, and luckily some of Chicago’s best chefs have come up with ways to make this squash shine.
At The Gage, Chef Pete Coenen has combined a classic treatment for pumpkin, a pureed soup, with savory smoked duck and a garnish of goat cheese.
“It’s very reminiscent of fall to me,” said Coenen. “Pumpkins and the smoky flavor and smell remind me of home this time of year. Burning fires at night and burning brush and the smoke it lets off during the day mixed with pumpkin carving are absolutely a match made in heaven.” The soup is topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, a favorite fall snack.
If you’re looking for something a bit more exotic to pair with your pumpkin, head over to Red Door. There, Chef Troy Graves has cut open a miniature pumpkin from Nichols Farm, stuffed it with lobster and chanterelle mushrooms and topped the whole thing with a red curry sauce. The pumpkin is tender enough to eat. “In the kitchen at Red Door, we focus on using the freshest and finest seasonal ingredients that can also be found locally,” Graves explained. This dish takes that principle to the extreme, by incorporating Swiss chard grown in the restaurant’s own garden.
Looking for something a little less highbrow? Jake Melnick’s has got you covered. They’ve taken their famous chicken wings and topped them with a pumpkin seed pesto, a delicious seasonal twist on a bar snack. The seeds are combined with basil, lemon, garlic and Parmesan cheese to make everything extra-savory. Chef Ryan Kikkert picked a particularly spicy variety of basil, to give wing-lovers a little bit different version of kick that they love.
At Epic, Chef Matthew Pollock has created a pumpkin dish that will seriously fill you up — a pumpkin burger. The prime beef burger is topped with fried pumpkin and caramelized apple. “I wanted to put a creative spin on these fall staples,” said Pollock. “So I decided to deep fry the pumpkin, add sugar and thyme to the apple, and make them toppings for a burger. The crunch and sweetness of the fried pumpkin and the mild tart of the apple perfectly complement the juicy burger served on a flaky, brioche bun.” The burger is topped with Swiss cheese and, if you’re looking for a serious pumpkin overload, served with Lakefront Brewery’s Pumpkin Lager.
After all of that squash-eating, you’re going to need a drink to wash everything down. The folks at Rebar have you covered. They’ve created the Harvest Pie, a drink that combines rum, whiskey, cinnamon-sugar and, you guessed it, pumpkin puree.
So this year, don’t limit yourself to the canned stuff or load up on nutmeg. Let the pumpkin really shine, and you might be surprised how much you like it.
Anthony Todd is a local freelance writer.