All things pumpkin: Plumbing the depths of our favorite fall flavor

Paul Smith jokingly says pumpkin is becoming the new truffle — but he might be onto something.

“Everyone is doing something with pumpkin right now,” said Smith, executive chef at Buzz Food Services.

As the leaves begin to change and temperatures begin to drop, pumpkin is popping up on menus at restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and bakeries in a variety of forms.

Everything from latte and cereal to soda and ice cream brands tout “limited edition” of pumpkin-flavored products each fall.

Local restaurants and bakeries are joining in and rolling out pumpkin-spiced menus of their own.

“The great thing about pumpkin is that it is very versatile,” Smith said. “It takes a lot of flavors on. You don’t have to just do it in a pumpkin pie with your classic allspice and pumpkin spice. Which, I think, is a lot of times what people think of when they think of pumpkin. They think of that pumpkin spice as pumpkin flavor.”

At a recent cooking demonstration at the Capitol Market, Smith prepared a pumpkin soup, hoping to show the more than two dozen attendees that cooking with pumpkin can be more than the pumpkin spice flavor found in many sweet treats this time of year.

“Sometimes I’m not partial to the allspice, the cinnamon and all that. I like to do it more in the savory application, as opposed to the sweet,” Smith said.

Restaurants are rolling out pumpkin treats and drinks along with hints of pumpkin added into popular favorites — showing off the versatility of a fall favorite.

At Charleston’s Bridge Road Bistro, managers Sandy Call and Christopher Conard said they work to incorporate “fun and creative” pumpkin items into the menu daily.

The bistro has worked to add “accents” of pumpkin to its regular menu, Conard said, including items like a pumpkin cream sauce for a seafood dish or pumpkin-infused grits and mashed potatoes.

The bistro has also added a “drunken pumpkin” cocktail to its drink menu for the fall season.

The drunken pumpkin includes spiced pumpkin vodka, a pumpkin cream liqueur with hints of cinnamon and sugar.

The glass is rimmed with cinnamon before it’s served.

The bistro is also serving up pumpkin desserts, like pumpkin bread pudding, to celebrate eating seasonally.

“Pumpkin, it just makes the fall season,” Conard said. “We’re always updating our menus on a seasonal basis. We’re always looking for ingredients to accent our various regular items.”

At Sarah’s Bakery, located on Bridge Road in Charleston, owner Sarah Plumley said the bakery has several favorite pumpkin-inspired desserts.

Treats like pumpkin cake balls, pumpkin whoppie pies and pumpkin-spiced cupcakes are popular this time of year, as are other fall favorites like caramel apples and apple crumb pies.

Fans of pumpkin-inspired desserts can also find a popular pumpkin-spiced latte tiramisu at Bricks and Barrels and mini pumpkin pies at Starlings Coffee and Provisions.

Owner Keeley Steele said Tricky Fish, located on Washington Street East in Charleston, is also serving up a variety pumpkin beers this fall.

At Charleston Bread, located on Capitol Street, customers start asking for pumpkin-flavored baked goods as early as September.

“Our cutoff is October,” owner Libby Chatfield said, laughing. “It’s a traditional fall food, it’s always been associated with fall. If you go to the farmers market right now, it is loaded with beautiful pumpkins. People ask for it. Way early.”

This week the bakery is expected to offer pumpkin scones, Chatfield said, and will have pumpkin-spiced sandwich cookies Friday and Saturday.

For Smith, seeing an influx of pumpkin-inspired dishes offered at restaurants and bakeries highlights the importance of eating pumpkin and other “winter squashes” in season.

“My philosophy on food in general is using the highest-end proteins that you can get and using the most seasonal, local produce,” he said. “You’ll find pumpkin in everything — and that’s a good thing. Using seasonal ingredients is what we should be doing, not only as chefs, but as home gourmands at the same time.”

Pumpkin enthusiasts don’t have to eat out to enjoy a taste of fall. Smith said there are several simple ways to prepare pumpkin dishes at home.

“The great thing about pumpkin is that it is very versatile. You can dice it up and add it to a risotto, you can make a puree or dice it up and use it as a ravioli filling,” he said. “You can do a soup, or a puree as a substitute for a mashed-potato. It is starchy, and it’s good for you.”

When cooking pumpkin, Smith said he cuts the pumpkin in half and then scoops the seeds out — setting them aside to be used later for a garnish. He then suggests cutting the pumpkin into smaller, more manageable portions and roasting it to “intensify the sweetness” and make it easier to prepare.

As for picking the right pumpkin to cook with, Smith said size does matter.

“You want something that is manageable. Think about your knives at home; you’re going to want to be able to cut it. It is pretty hard, so it is a little bit dangerous to cut,” he said. “A huge pumpkin probably isn’t going to be awesome to eat. As a rule of thumb, with squashes it seems like, the bigger they are, they get a little bit more bitter.”

While larger pumpkins may be more suitable for carving, Smith said he recommends purchasing a smaller pumpkin to prepare a meal for a family of four.

As with any other squash or vegetable, Smith recommends washing the pumpkin before cutting it and checking for any soft spots.

“This is the perfect time of year to start experimenting with them,” he said.

Reach Carlee Lammers at carlee.lammers@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1230 or follow @CarleeLammers on Twitter.

Pumpkin Soup

2 pounds pumpkin, chopped into large chunks

2 medium onions, sliced

2 cloves of garlic

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup milk

salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients (except salt and pepper) in a saucepan and bring to boil, then reduce heat and let simmer until pumpkin is tender.

Remove from heat and use a immersion blender to blend until smooth. If you don’t have a immersion blender, use a regular blender.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve with crusty bread.

Variations: For a richer finish, substitute the milk with cream, but add after blending and do not bring to a boil.

Garnishes: Dollop of yogurt, sour cream or cream fraiche goes wonderfully.

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