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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2004 12:48 am

The mighty pumpkin: from polenta to pie

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Autumn means cooler temperatures, falling leaves, and carved pumpkins on front porches. For local chefs, this time of year also means an abundance of round orange produce that gets the creative juices flowing.

Chef Michael Higgins of Maldaner's uses pumpkin in a variety of interesting dishes, such as pasta mixed with chanterelle mushrooms, boar, and roasted pumpkin. "They go with a lot of things. They are very versatile and nice and sweet," he says.

As we talk, Higgins slices up a cheese pumpkin. This meaty variety with few seeds is one of several varieties he uses in his pasta, cheesecake, and roasted-vegetable dishes.

Illinois leads the nation in pumpkin production, making different varieties cheap and easy to find, Higgins says. He buys from local growers whenever possible.

Higgins isn't the only chef taking the pumpkin for a spin in the kitchen. At Soirée Bistro, chef Sean Cross prepares breaded pork chops with herbs and teams them with pumpkin polenta, which he fries and serves as a small cake. The pork and pumpkin are accompanied by creamed spinach and cannelloni beans, shiitake mushrooms, and applewood-smoked bacon. Starting this week at Indigo, chef Sean Keeley will be offering homemade pumpkin soup, which he prepares by cutting the pumpkin like a grapefruit, then removing the rind and seeds. The chunks of pumpkin are oven-roasted and puréed with sautéed onions, chicken stock, and leeks. The soup is topped with crème fraîche.

"Pumpkins are pretty easy to cook with. Anything you might use zucchini in, you can use pumpkin instead," Keeley says. "Once it's cooked, it's mushy, so you could use it in mashed potatoes or cornbread stuffing." He's also offering pumpkin chiles rellenos, which he makes by stuffing roasted poblano peppers with roasted pumpkin meat, sage, and cheese; coating the peppers with spiced cornmeal; and searing and baking them. Keeley says he's decided to bake rather than fry the peppers this year as a means of accommodating health-conscious customers.

At Augie's Front Burner, miniature pumpkins are used as both thebaking and serving dishes for the crème brûlée and the rice-and-broccoli side dish.

Of course we can't forget the traditional pumpkin pie. At Robbie's, owner Arch Bailey prepares a frozen ice-cream version from a recipe handed down by his mother, who made it as a way to get her kids to eat pumpkin. The pie, which became a tradition in the Bailey household, can now be ordered by customers year-round.

But fall food at local restaurants isn't limited to all things orange. In fact, as Higgins and I discuss the merits of pumpkins, he is preparing to debut another fall dish: duck confit with roasted acorn squash and fig jam.

Pumpkin-Sundae Pie
Courtesy of Robbie's

Pie
10-inch pie shell
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup pumpkin filling
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 1/2 pint vanilla ice cream

Prebake pie shell at 350°F for 10 minutes. Whip cream until thick; set aside. Combine sugar, pumpkin, and spices, then fold in whipping cream. Spoon ice cream into bottom of pie shell, forming a smooth half-inch-thick layer. Layer pumpkin mixture over ice-cream layer, then freeze pie for two hours.

Caramel-glaze topping
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine syrup, brown sugar, and water in saucepan on low heat until smooth. Remove from heat and add vanilla; drizzle warm sauce over pie before serving.

Pumpkin Cheesecake
Courtesy of Maldaner's

Crust
3/4 cup graham-cracker crumbs
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup light-brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
2 ounces butter

Combine dry ingredients. Add hot melted butter. Press into springform pan and chill for one hour.

Filling
1 1/2 cup pumpkin puree
Four eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
24 ounces softened cream cheese, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon (optional)

Mix pumpkin, eggs, spices, salt, and brown sugar, then set aside. Cream together the cheese and granulated sugar, then beat in the cream, cornstarch, and vanilla. Add the pumpkin mixture and beat until smooth. Pour into crust and bake at 350°F for approximately 50 minutes.

Topping
2 cups sour cream
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla or 1 tablespoon bourbon

Mix and spread on top of cake. Bake five minutes, then chill overnight.

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