Every year come October, Americans seemingly forget about every flavor but pumpkin.
Eaters could devise a nearly complete diet of pumpkin bagels and pumpkin lattes for breakfast, pumpkin yogurt and pumpkin Pringles for lunch and pasta with pumpkin sauce for dinner — paired with a pumpkin beer or pumpkin vodka cocktail.
Yet very few of these heavily marketed items are made with real pumpkins. While consumers may count on the aroma of pumpkins to signify the start of autumn, they tend to treat the actual winter squash as mere home decor.
“Only in the U.S. do we mostly use pumpkins to carve for Halloween or to display for the Thanksgiving meal,” says Robert Schueller of Melissa’s Produce, a national distributor trying to sell consumers on the idea of cooking pumpkins.
As Schueller points out, even the tiny pumpkins typically reserved for windowsills are edible.
“Millions upon millions of canned pumpkins are bought to make pies every fall,” frets Schueller. “Maybe most Americans think (raw pumpkins) are too difficult?”
In Charleston, though, chefs are increasingly finding ways to use pumpkins besides putting them in pies.
Inspired by the output of Johns Island grower Sidi Limehouse, who’s unaware of any other commercial farms raising so many heirloom pumpkin varieties, local chefs are enthusiastically incorporating pumpkin into their sweet and savory dishes.
“It’s definitely versatile,” says Chris Stewart, chef and co-owner of The Glass Onion. “You can treat them like sweet potatoes.”
At The Glass Onion, pumpkin has appeared in soups and salads. Still, Stewart concedes that the offbeat pumpkins beloved by forward-looking, upscale restaurant kitchens remain underappreciated in most culinary corners.
“I think people really like to decorate with them,” Stewart says. “In general, it hasn’t caught on. It’s not as mainstream as pork belly.”
Eating the centerpiece
Limehouse faced the same problem when two years ago he tried to unload two bins of heirloom pumpkins, the outgrowth of a project to enhance the farm’s seasonal floral arrangements.
“We thought it would be cute to do pumpkins holding flowers for Thanksgiving,” Limehouse says.
At first, the pumpkins seemed destined to forever remain vegetal vases.
“They sent them back,” Limehouse recalls of the first batch he promoted. “They couldn’t sell those darn things. We sent them to all the restaurants in town, and most of them used them for ornaments.”
Curiosity finally led a few chefs to tinker with Limehouse’s heirlooms.
“And, next thing you know, everyone wants heirloom pumpkins,” Limehouse says.
The suddenly desirable pumpkins sprawl over 3 acres at Limehouse’s Rosebank Farms, which makes for a fairly massive patch. “You get a lot of pumpkins out of 3 acres,” he says.
Limehouse cultivates 13 heirloom varieties, and another 10 varieties that really are meant for carving.
He anticipates each variety this year will yield 250 to 350 pumpkins, which means his heirloom harvest is measured in the thousands.
To better understand the diversity of Limehouse’s crop, and the possibilities it presents for professional and amateur cooks, it’s worth examining his heirlooms individually.
There’s incredible variety both between and within varieties; pumpkin fans can’t count on any two pumpkins having the exact same shape, size or flavor.
That translates to extra work for prep cooks charged with processing pumpkins by the bushel, but heirloom acolytes cherish the idiosyncrasies.
“We broke down 10 pumpkins for Field Feast (a Lowcountry Local First fundraiser), and everyone was a different color, different texture,” says Two Boroughs Larder’s chef Josh Keeler.
Squashing out sameness
Four of Limehouse’s pumpkins are pie pumpkins with American roots: the New England Pie, New England Cheddar, Long Island Cheese and Autumn Crown are classically orange with bright orange flesh. As they’re name suggests, they’re especially suitable for baking.
The buff-colored Buckskin, by contrast, is good for canning.
The stumpy Jarrahdale, a pumpkin of Australian descent, also has rich orange meat. But its exterior is blue-gray, with distinctively deep-set ribs.
Wart-ridden black Futsos, a Japanese import, have even darker skin. Limehouse likes to use them for soup, but, like most squashes, they’re equally good halved, buttered and roasted.
Other pumpkins in Limehouse’s field include the dark-green Musquee de Provence (“We call that the Fairytale, because we’d never call anything by its French name,” Limehouse says, poking fun at provincialism); the flattish, white-skinned Valenciano; the Cinderella, which also has a French name but was rechristened in the U.S. for its resemblance to Cinderella’s carriage; and the ovoid Kakai, best known for its hull-less seeds.
In recent weeks, local pumpkins have appeared in FIG’s soup with crab and brown butter; alongside a beef filet at Peninsula Grill, which is also serving fried oysters with pumpkin jalapeno relish and grilled sea scallops with pumpkin butter; and aboard a seared swordfish plate at Hank’s Seafood.
At Two Boroughs Larder, pumpkins are pickled, curried and turned into soups, including a soup built on a base of the vestigial whey from cooking up rice.
“Until I moved down South, I didn’t experiment with pumpkin as much,” Keeler says. “There’s an application for all of them.”
Keeler suspects cooks will soon become more comfortable digging into pumpkins for dinner.
“Most of them go for decoration,” Limehouse says of his current inventory. “I tell them, ‘When you get through, please make something out of this.’”
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.