The Flavours of Fall
By Patricia Nicholson
As the days grow shorter and the cool weather approaches, diners are ready for a change from lighter fare. Adding elements from the fall harvest can help bring the rich, savoury flavours of autumn to your menu.
"It's coming into a heartier time of year and people are looking for changes in their menus," says Larry McIntosh, chair of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and president of Peak of the Market, a grower-owned produce supplier in Manitoba. "It relates to comfort food: going into fall when it starts getting a little cooler at night, those heartier root vegetables and squashes are what Canadians are used to." There is plenty of fall produce coming off the fields now, McIntosh says.
Farther west, chefs are making use of that produce during the Eat BC festival, which celebrates locally sourced ingredients. During the province-wide event, which runs from September 14th to 30th, participating restaurants create signature dishes that showcase the wide variety of foods produced in the province, including meat, fish, cheese, fruit, eggs, and plenty of fresh local vegetables.
Squash is one of the biggest vegetables for autumn, and one that has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years. It isn't just for purees and colourful sides anymore. In addition to gourmet soups, squash has migrated to the centre of the plate in savoury dishes such as butternut squash risotto that play up its sweet, nutty flavour.
They also turn up both stuffed and as stuffing. Squash is a classic filling for stuffed pastas such as ravioli and tortellini, and even lasagna. Conversely, halved and deseeded squash practically begs to be stuffed: acorn, butternut and buttercup squash provide a perfect vehicle for a variety of fillings from cous cous to sausage.
McIntosh says spaghetti squash is also becoming more popular. Once cooked, its flesh can be removed in strands that resemble long pasta. It makes a unique seasonal side, but can also be served with a sauce as a pasta substitute.
Pumpkin is also being used more often, most commonly in soups. Pie pumpkins, which are smaller and sweeter than the pumpkins grown for carving at Halloween (see sidebar), are starting to cross over from dessert into these savoury recipes.
Other winter vegetables that are being rediscovered include parsnips, beets and rutabagas.
Parsnips in particular are making a comeback in foodservice, McIntosh says. They're being served roasted, in soups, and also in sauces, such as parsnip sauce for steak.
Beets can make colourful and flavourful seasonal menu additions, such as beet chips.
These old-fashioned root vegetables that have been out of favour for the past 20 years are what many chefs are asking about these days, McIntosh says.
"They want to find out more about what they can do with those types of vegetables."
Peak of the Market maintains a database of 2,500 recipes on its Web site, www.peakmarket.com.
"A lot of the chefs like to feature local produce and certainly the squashes and parsnips are available locally, so it's an ideal time," McIntosh says of the fall harvest.
Field fresh, locally grown fall vegetables are available in most parts of Canada right now, so it's easy and convenient to offer your customers the taste of autumn.
Pumpkin Tips from a Pro
Of all produce, pumpkins are the most evocative of fall. At the end of October, they transform into the most familiar of all Halloween decorations: the jack-o-lantern.
Pumpkins range in size from canteloupe-sized gourds small enough to carve into individual table lanterns, to immense 1,000-pound giants that can accommodate elaborate and detailed carvings such as those created by professional sculptor David Billings of www.sandemons.com.
Even without the scale and skill of a professional carver, you don't have
to limit your pumpkin carving to traditional jack-o-lantern faces: you can
carve anything from a picture, to Halloween motifs, to your logo, to lettering
(your daily special?) into a pumpkin and set it aglow.
Billings says he often draws or transfers an outline onto the pumpkin,
then gets to work with a few simple tools.
A large blade knife is good for removing the top of the pumpkin to scoop out
the seeds, and for leveling off the bottom for a flat base. For the actual carving, Billings favours a paring knife for cutting, a small pottery tool for detail work,
and he sometimes uses a cheese grater to remove areas of skin. However,
with a kitchen full of utensils at your disposal, you might want to experiment
with apple corers, channel knives, vegetable peelers or melon ballers.
You don't have to cut all the way through the pumpkin. Designs can be carved into the flesh. Billings does much of his work this way, often doing reverse carving on the inside of the pumpkin to get the shadowing just right for the light to shine through.
When you're ready to display your pumpkin, place something under it to protect the table, Billings says.
For lighting, tea lights or other candles can provide the customary eerie glow.
A less flammable option is a small flashlight, such as Mountain Equipment Co-op's tiny and inexpensive Turtle LED lights. For larger pumpkins, a regular lightbulb might be a good solution. Billings usually uses a 60-watt bulb to light his creations.
It's now part of your décor, but a carved pumpkin is still a vegetable, and needs to be treated like one! Outdoor pumpkins benefit from the cool fall weather, but indoor pumpkins can go bad quickly, Billings says. He recommends that indoor pumpkins be kept somewhere cool when not lit. If possible, refrigerate them overnight, covered with a damp towel, he says. Even with those precautions, don't expect an indoor pumpkin to last more than a few days.