There?s finally a chill in the air in Chicago, and fall means the start of the busy season here at The Spice House. I?m not talking about the obvious holiday shopping season (although that?s certainly the height of our busy season!). I don?t know whether it?s some age-old instinct to put on fat for the winter or whether it?s just more pleasant to spend time in a warm kitchen when it?s cold out, but something about that first frost, that slight but pervasive scent of leaves and woodsmoke, makes people?s minds turn to apple pie, baked squash, roasted meat, stews, and other cold weather culinary delights.
Fall cooking is my favorite, and I can tell by the sudden increase in customers looking for cinnamon, chili powder, and pumpkin pie spice that I?m in good company. Now that the summer BBQ season is over, it?s time to take advantage of the fall harvest. Farmer?s markets are full of exotically named apples (who can resist an apple called cox?s orange pippen or winesap?), fall greens, made tender by the first frost and heirloom varieties of pumpkins and squashes.
Although the image of a pumpkin is symbolic of the bounty of an American harvest, in American cooking pumpkins have been unfairly relegated to pie and jack-o-lanterns. Pie is, of course, a delicious use of pumpkin, but these versatile gourds are so much more than mere pie filling! Baked or stewed, pumpkin is an excellent savory side dish. Pureed into soups it can be either the featured flavor or merely a fat-free way to add a creamy texture. Add it to pancakes or muffins for the same reason.
I am always seduced by the stacks of softball-sized New England Sugar pumpkins, gleaming golden and perfect for individual serving. An easy but impressive main course is soup made in the pumpkin – just cut off the top, scrape out the inside, and layer in broth, cubes of stale bread, seasoned pumpkin puree, and gruyere cheese, and bake. Or for a more carnivorous crowd, try stuffing the pumpkins with seasoned meat, like a stuffed bell pepper.