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Chef John Foster: Pumpkins are coming, pumpkins are coming! Mostly not excited, but let’s try soup

The pumpkins are coming and with them all sorts of recipe and menu ideas to incorporate pumpkin into your October events. No other food item elicits such a specific response as pumpkin and October. I suppose a close second would be turkey and November, but that bird owns only 1 or two days, pumpkins are eternally and annoyingly October.

I bet you even have the month highlighted in orange sharpie not yellow.

Sorry, it comes with the territory, its public knowledge that I’m not a big fan of pumpkin. I use it sparingly, enjoy it begrudgingly, and often find myself at a loss as to how best to employ it in a recipe or menu item.

What makes matters worse is that I am a Northerner by birth, and pumpkins were an ever-present item in my fall childhood long before they were shilled for Halloween. I was even aware at an early age that Halloween pumpkins were not the same as pie pumpkins, a fact that seems to evade most people. While you can certainly eat a jack o’ lantern and its seeds, good luck trying to scrape enough off the insides to fill a small pie shell. And don’t forget to strain the pulp as its quite stringy and tough.

The constant proddings of my pastry chef who also happens to be the lead baking instructor at Sullivan Lexington have helped me to appreciate pumpkin in several forms, bread, and mousse.

Her work with this fall vegetable seems to inspire her and that in turn draws me in. I’m pretty much game for anything as long as someone exhibits the same passion.

Still, the king of pumpkin dishes remains the pie, for better or worse, and believe me I’ve had some bad pumpkin pie. Stale, blonde crust with a grainy heavily spiced filling can only be redeemed to a point by some rich whipped cream. Chef Armstrong teaches pumpkin pie every quarter as does my Basic Skills instructor Chef Hester. You would think once a quarter is enough, but no. The canned pumpkin appears more than several times in ten weeks and I am obligated to sample the results. I can honestly say that for the most part there is hope for my pumpkin disdain.

If properly done, not over spiced or gelatinous, the pumpkin pie, especially out the oven is comforting and satisfying. I will contend though that it goes downhill from there. I enjoy apple pie at any temperature, but cold pumpkin is a hard sell for me.

That’s when you lose me, folks, and back I go to apple and pecan, my safe havens hot or cold.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for me and pumpkins and like most cooks, I try first with the simple stuff: soups.

Currently, its curry that I feel goes best with pumpkin. Since I like most curries because of the wide range of flavors I’m not limited to one or two. The masala or dried spice mix is the most visible part of the curry dish but if you don’t start with a good aromatic base, there is not enough depth to the dish. Equal amounts of onion, garlic, and ginger, diced and sweated in clarified butter is the first step in any flavor base. Once your aromatics are sweated add some of your masalas.

A good masala for pumpkin should include some recognizable spices like clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon, but for added excitement a bit of black pepper, cardamom and fenugreek. Adding a good pumpkin puree to that or chunks of fresh pumpkin transfers the flavors of the masala and the aromatics to the main ingredient.

Once you’ve added your pumpkin it needs to cook. I add cider, and sometimes a bit of tart apple for another flavor profile. Avoid too much of either as it can take over quickly as it reduces. I will also add stock for volume. Vegetable stock gives you the benefit of a somewhat neutral flavor, chicken stock will give flavor and a bit of body. Simmer the soup gently, don’t boil or the curry might turn bitter. If the puree thickens the soup too much thin it out again with stock, not cider. When the flavor approaches the depth you want there are several more choices you have to make. I purposely didn’t add heat to my initial aromatics, so now is the time to finish the seasoning and add some sambal, siracha or even some chopped fresh chilies.

If the soup needs some sweetness, avoid sugar or even brown sugar, consider honey or sorghum, both local and much more complex.

If you’re used to a creamy pumpkin soup, the natural choice would be heavy cream. Instead, you might try coconut milk or to order a whisking in of some crème Fraiche or sour cream. If the soup tastes a bit muddy add some acid. A good apple cider vinegar, some fresh squeezed orange or lemon, even a bit of pomegranate juice. I serve this soup with some naan or puri (poori) and sprinkle the top with some toasted pepitas, pumpkin seeds.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.   

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