November 7, 2012

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

Smashing pumpkins

Like most everyone else who lives in temperate climes, I enjoy the changing of the seasons. The beauty of a snow-covered hillside. That first warm day of spring when you leave the coat at home. When I was a child, I couldn’t wait for the week the pool opened.

But, fall: I am putting you on notice. A season so pretentious it sometimes uses an alternate name (oh, we’re “autumn” today, are we?), so vain it paints itself in gaudy colors, so filled with political campaign signs and so chock-full of pre-holiday madness you can’t seem to catch your breath. And on top of all that, a season so rife with squashes and root vegetables that I’ll probably have to buy a new vegetable peeler.

Now, about that ubiquitous “seasonal” menu. Let me at ’em in the springtime — at least produce that’s seasonal then is colorful and varied. Ditto for summer with its influx of fruits, berries and tomatoes. But fall practically bludgeons us with its heavy bounty of vine fruits and, dammit, stuff that’s hard to peel: potatoes, beets and, especially, my personal nemesis, the butternut squash.

Oooh, the butternut squash, the darling of the seasonal fall menu. It seems to have been designed by nature to keep you from getting inside it safely; it’s the oyster of the vegetable kingdom. And, of course, it can’t be basically straight like a carrot or a parsnip — that would be too easy. No, the butternut squash has to be all curvy, with this weird ratio of flesh-to-hollow zone that makes it difficult to cut into uniform pieces.

“But, the color,” folks gasp, “the flavor!” as they kiss their fingertips to the sky as if suddenly channeling Jacques Pepin. And yes, before I get emails, I know you can roast it inside its rind and scoop it out, but that doesn’t make a very lovely root vegetable medley. (You know, the one in a glossy magazine on your coffee table, where the butternut squash is featured in perfect cubes nestled amongst its medley mates, the also hateful-to-process golden and red beets.) And yes, you can buy it already peeled, but who knows how long that one’s been on a truck, right?

All I’m saying is, sometimes I feel if I have to face another case of butternut squash, I’ll abandon my kitchen and run screaming down Bardstown Road with a pepper mill in one hand and a cinnamon stick in the other.

But, I digress. The real villain of the fall menu is the seemingly friendly pumpkin. It’s cute; it looks like a little colorful beanbag with a hat on. You can carve a funny or scary face on it and put a candle inside. People, did you know there’s an entire sporting event built around which team can fling it the farthest to smash into smithereens? (Google “Punkin Chunkin.”)

There’s probably a reason for that: The restaurant industry cannot seem to quit the pumpkin. We couldn’t just rest on our laurels with a fabulous pumpkin pie you made with a can of puree. I remember the first time, years ago, when I saw pumpkin cheesecake listed on a menu. Sign me up, I thought. Sure enough, it was to die for. But then some people started taking things a shade too far.

Just bear with me a minute. Pumpkin ice cream, check. Pumpkin roll, awesome — most foods are improved by the addition of sweetened cream cheese. Pumpkin bread, pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, pumpkin pancakes. Pumpkin risotto, lasagna, pudding. Pumpkin tarts, fritters, crème brulee. Then they went and put it in beer! (Admit it — you guys are all just pretending it tastes good. Beer’s not supposed to have pumpkin in it.) Curried pumpkin gratin (bleargh). Thai pumpkin soup (really?), pumpkin pickles, pumpkin seed pesto.

I could go on. The point is, by this time in the fall, I’m weary of all things pumpkin flavored, and it’s not even Halloween. And I’m tired of peeling, blanching, shocking and cubing up all sorts of things. It’s no wonder we chefs sort of phone in the “seasonal winter menu” — we’re exhausted, and one arm’s more muscular than the other from all the knife work since August.

So I’ll just be over here in the corner, sipping my hot chocolate laced with pumpkin pie vodka, until the pea shoots start coming up. Don’t make any sudden moves; those beets over there on the counter are giving me a dirty look.

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef of Juleps Catering.