Food

Autumn Presents Delicious Challenges for Upstate Chefs

Chef John Malik on Upstate Restaurant Scene

Not too long ago I prepared some pumpkin soup shots for our guests. Using a (very) large knife cleaver, I split the pumpkins in half and roasted each at 325 F for about an hour. Then I removed the skin with a paring knife, tossed the soft flesh into a pot with butter-cooked yellow onions, shallots, leeks, unsweetened almond milk and a quart of vegetable broth, brought it all to a simmer and after twenty minutes, pureed it to a luxurious texture. I seasoned it with winter spices and the result was a naturally creamy and intriguing soup and when served in a shot glass, I was certain it made a delicious hors d’oeuvre. If I serve tomato soup, or she-crab, or something as traditional, I’m met with smiles of recognition and anticipation. Yet pumpkin soup is always met with equal parts curiosity and standoffishness. Which I find perplexing.

Yeah, they’re tough. If you closed your eyes and ran your hand over their hides you might think you’re inside a cold Chevrolet pick-up and not at a local farmer’s market in November. And for those of us that cook professionally, it can be a melancholic pivot from the delicately skinned abundance of summer to the leathery bark of Autumn. Imagine taking a slow promenade through a Victoria’s Secret with your significant other then being quickly shoved through the front door of a Cabela’s.

Time to pick yourself off the floor and come to terms with winter squash, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins. Years ago, when I had my own restaurant, I’d drive through my suburban neighborhood on November 1st looking for yesterday’s Halloween decorations. Pumpkins of all shapes and sizes would be tossed to the curb, discarded by their owners who were now clattering through the attic in search of pilgrim-shaped salt and pepper shakers, and red and green tinsel. How come those winter squash didn’t rot away into a puddle of orange goo? It’s the nature of pumpkins, and other winter crops, to survive. Indeed our own pumpkins and sweet potatoes are left to cure for a coupe of weeks before we cook them.

Their resilient hides are the attractive part of a pumpkin, and their culinary cousins. It keeps out moisture and prevents the interior from mold, mildew and the like and that’s why they’re able to sit in solitude for so long and still remain accessible. High in flavor, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin A, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are also highly versatile. Let’s take a look at how some of Greenville’s chefs are utilizing these locally grown gems.

Karin Feeny at Kitchen Sync is a fan of winter.

Take a look at this pizza of roasted sweet potatoes, ricotta cheese, caramelized onions, and smoky bacon. It’s one of her weekly specials and if you’re coming for this particular pizza, best to check to see if it’s on her menu.

Raw, a large butternut could be used as a boat anchor, a bludgeon, or even a wheel chock for a 737. Once roasted, the supple flesh provides a great cook like Roberto Cortez with a myriad of possibilities. At ASADA, Gina and Roberto are serving a vegetarian special of an arepa with roasted butternut squash, chayote squash, roasted poblano peppers, and feta cheese with serrano crema.

Closer to home, or at least closer to where I work, Chef Chris Arnold, Chef de Cuisine at Soby’s, has a salmon preparation that really hits on all of winter’s cylinders: grilled salmon with braised Bradford Farm collard greens, diced and roasted butternut and pumpkin. The salmon is topped with sunflower seed pesto.

Over in Traveler’s Rest, Chef Adam Cooke at Topsoil Restaurant features a Kabocha squash soup, and I’ve been told that the pumpkin spice latte at Methodical Coffee uses a pumpkin puree syrup with winter spices.

If the thought of cooking and pureeing one of those ungainly products of winter soil and chilled water escapes you, stop in at your favorite local, chef-driven restaurant or coffee shop and enjoy the luxuriousness of winter. No cleaver is required.


This article is part of a new series of essays from our friend John Malik.
Extremely accomplished, John is a James Beard Society nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast, has published a novel Doughnuts for Amy and you can find his essays on Food, Travel, and the culinary scene of the Southeast in the Huffington Post. John is currently Chef of the Loft at Soby’s.

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