PORTLAND, Ore. — Anne Cuggino, chef of the Veritable Quandary restaurant, focuses on cooking with local, sustainable ingredients, and right now that means pumpkins.
She uses squashes and pumpkins as mainstays of fall menus, and the local farmers market is full of them. For Cuggino, that’s convincing evidence autumn has really arrived.
"When pumpkins start turning, it’s the first sign of the harvest season," she said. "For cooks that means changing your entire menu, so it’s an exciting time. Just like tomatoes and corn define a restaurant menu in summer, pumpkins are the foundation of a seasonal-based menu in the fall."
Cuggino makes regular trips to the market to see what varieties of pumpkin and squash are ripening, and lets the produce inspire her dishes.
"I think it’s kind of a European philosophy of cooking," she said. "I really enjoy going to the farm, seeing all these crazy-looking pumpkins, then cooking them, tasting them and figuring out what dishes they will work best with."
Cuggino, 34, grew up in Green Lawn, on Long Island, N.Y., and arrived at her present job by way of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park., N.Y., and after working at a variety of restaurants around the country. She’s been at the Veritable Quandary since 1995.
To make the most of pumpkins’ versatility, Cuggino has put together a four-course meal with pumpkins used creatively in each course.
There’s a first course of seared sea scallops, a salad of pumpkin flowers, a main dish of quail and what Cuggino calls a real pumpkin pie.
All recipes except the pie make two servings, so cooks may wish to adjust quantities for the first three dishes according to the number of diners, or they may wish to choose one of the dishes as the focus of a less elaborate meal.
The seared scallop dish includes a tasty romesco sauce, which often includes almonds.
"Replacing the traditional ground almonds with ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds) gives this romesco a seasonal twist," Cuggino said. "The smokiness of the paprika is a delicious accent to the tartness of the apple and the sweet frites."
Sea scallops with puree of pumpkin <BR>
and green apple, <BR>
pepita romesco <BR>
and pumpkin frites
Cuggino said her recipe for fried pumpkin flowers can be made with any type of pumpkin flower.
"Harvest the male flowers early in the season," she said. "The female flower has a swollen stem and produces the squash later in the fall."
For the pesto, "substituting the pumpkin seeds for pine nuts, and parsley for basil, is another way to give a classic menu item a fun, seasonal twist."
Cuggino uses sheep’s milk ricotta, but regular ricotta works fine.
Fried pumpkin flowers stuffed with ricotta over field greens with pumpkin seed pesto vinaigrette
Cuggino likes quail as an option for her roast dish because "quail is very rich in flavor, and I think it pairs very well with the smoke and spiciness of the chorizo."
The chorizo saute is a hearty side that would also go very well with chicken, if quail is unavailable, she said.
Sage-roasted quail on a saute of chorizo, pumpkin and swiss chard
For her real pumpkin pie, Cuggino likes to use an all-butter crust.
"I like the richness of flavor," she said, "and the crust will be sturdy enough to hold a wet filling."