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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 02:20 pm

Much more than pie

Sean Keeley serves up a stuffed pepper dish with pumpkin at Sebastian’s Hideout.

Becoming a chef changed Sean Keeley's perception of the pumpkin.

Most people think of the orange, round member of the gourd family as something to carve as a Halloween decoration. Its meaty interior is usually only considered as a main ingredient for pumpkin pie. Even then, the pumpkin filling is usually purchased in cans. Who knew the versatile, vibrant fruit could be used in everything from soups and stews to salads and ice cream?

As a child, Keeley was among those who regarded the pumpkin only as a traditional holiday dessert. But when he began cooking for a living, he discovered the unique uses of pumpkins. Now a chef at Sebastian's Hideout, he roasts them in the oven before cutting out the soft flesh to use in his chili rellenos. He spices up the traditional stuffed pepper dish by adding pumpkin puree to the cheese and spice inside the pepper, before dipping it in batter and frying it. The item will soon be on the menu at the restaurant, along with pumpkin cheesecake.

While many local restaurants offer pumpkin pie during the fall season when pumpkins are plentiful, Sebastian's is just one of a few local eateries that are using the seasonal fruit to create interesting and unusual menu items.

Maldaner's is offering pumpkin ratatouille, a blend of roasted pumpkin, eggplant, zucchini, squash and red onion, served as a side dish, as well as pumpkin risotto, a blend of roasted pumpkin and risotto blended with heavy cream. Chris Howell, one of the restaurant's cooks, says customers are accustomed to Chef Michael Higgins's use of seasonal produce in interesting ways, but are still "amazed at what he does do with things."

Howell says he often watched his grandmother prepare pumpkin pie from scratch and even mix pumpkin with mashed potatoes. "I knew that pumpkin could be quite versatile. When I started working with Michael, I saw that a lot more could be done with it," Howell says.

To prepare a pumpkin, Howell suggests cutting the fruit in half with a sharp knife, then removing the skin and interior seeds and pulp. It can then be cut in pieces and roasted, baked, pureed and used in a variety of dishes, as well as a replacement for squash or potatoes. Howell says roasting the fruit brings out a hearty flavor. "If you like sweet potatoes, try it with pumpkin. It's a lot better. I don't like yams, but I like pumpkin," he says.

Even though Howell says the size may be intimidating for some, "once you've done it, it's not difficult. When you cut it in half, the seeds come out easy."

There are other options to try the culinary uses and health benefits of pumpkin during the fall season. For dessert, The Feed Store is offering pumpkin cheesecake as its specialty flavor of the month, in addition to its regular vanilla and chocolate and raspberry flavors. Soiree Bistro is currently offering a white chocolate pumpkin cheesecake, served with a five-spice whipped cream.

Pumpkins also are used by many local bakeries for muffins and breads. Jubelt's Bakery offers a 50-cent discount on Fridays for pumpkin pies during October. A new menu item this year is pumpkin praline muffins, available through November. The family-owned bakery also offers a sugar-free pumpkin pie. Pumpkin muffins are also an occasional variety offered at Andiamo! And Trout Lily Cafe will begin offering cranberry and pumpkin muffins this week, which is a popular fall and winter menu item. Owner Kate Hawkes says "people start asking for them in June. We have a lot of requests."

Some area spots to try pumpkin dishes:

204 S. Sixth St. (217) 523-3262.

The Feed Store
516 E. Adams St. (217) 528-3355.

2343 W. Monroe St. (217) 793-5161.

222 S. 6th St. (217) 522-4313.

Sebastian's Hideout
221 S. 5th St. (217) 789-8988.

Soiree Bistro
2824 Plaza Dr. (217) 546-4660.

Trout Lily Café
218 S. Sixth St. (217) 391-0101.

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