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Good Gourd!

Carol Hubinger
Janet Orsi

Fresh from the vine: Sous-chef Carol Hubinger of Bistro Ralph pauses at the Petaluma Pumpkin Patch to size up the ingredients for a savory soup.

The scoop on how local chefs squish their squash

By Gretchen Giles

WITH THE DREAMY changing of the seasons, we at the Independent decided that it was high time to bully several local chefs into answering a few tough questions about their profession and its relationship to the world of the pumpkin.

You heard right--that which makes Thanksgiving dessert worth living for as well as providing the kids with some terrific potential fire hazards at the end of October.

As one who once willingly spent three hours tromping local pumpkin patches to find the Cinderella variety specifically called for in a pumpkin-infused risotto recipe, finally returning triumphant to the kitchen only to cut, scoop, roast, and purée the devil until it exactly resembled the canned stuff, I find my pumpkin sympathies a bit trauma-scarred. But though the end result may have resembled its tinny cousin, I had to admit that it tasted different, like something truly wrested off the vine.

ROBERT STEINER, the chef and owner of Petaluma's fine De Schmire's restaurant, gets a hearty chuckle from the notion of anyone being silly enough to waste that much time hunting along the ground for a particular type of gourd. "I just use a jack-o'-lantern," he offers cheerfully. Stifling down ugly feelings, I enquire as to how he uses it.

As with many other respondents, Steiner favors soup. "We do a couple of things," he says. "We do a pumpkin soup cooked right inside the pumpkin, with the lid cut off. Fill it up with chicken stock, butter, seasonings, put the pumpkin on a sheet pan and bake it, scrape it, add cream, blend, roast the pumpkin seeds and garnish with them. Serve the pumpkin right on the table."

Chefs speak in the shorthand of their profession, a jargon that seems never to include such pedestrian words as "cups" or "tablespoons."

BROUGHT WIPING her hands from the kitchen of Healdsburg's Bistro Ralph, where she and others are smack in the middle of preparing for the dinner shift, sous-chef Carol Hubinger manages to maintain her good cheer. "My favorite is roasted pumpkin soup with garlic, rosemary, and marscapone cheese," she answers immediately. Hubinger cuts a cleaned pumpkin in half and places the halves on a greased sheet with several whole heads of garlic and sprigs of fresh rosemary nestled on the squash flesh.

Baking it at 375 degrees until it's done (the nebulous state of "done" is the Zen secret of cooking), Hubinger then removes the pan from the oven, discards the rosemary sprigs, scrapes the flesh from the skin, and squeezes the now-soft and delectable roasted garlic into the hot pumpkin. Thus subdued, the pumpkin proper is thoroughly mashed and introduced into a pot of chicken stock, blended, and served with a goodly topping of Italy's answer to cream cheese, the marscapone.

Hubinger--whose previous lives have included a stint as a dessert chef, and who owned a San Francisco restaurant, Tisan--also likes to sneak pumpkin into crème brûlée served up with a crunchy pistachio and cranberry biscotti cookie. She also admires roasted pumpkin plumped into raviolis and seasoned with sage. And now she has to get the heck back into the kitchen.

MICHAEL SMITH, the chef and co-owner of Graton's Cafe Dahlia, is too busy to come to the phone. "I just like pumpkin pie," he shouts across the kitchen. "I know it's boring, but that's what I do." We leave it at that.

Up in Duncans Mills, Blue Heron chef Cliff Loffler brings a sweet boy-next-door enthusiasm to the humble ribbed orb. "Make a pumpkin butternut soup," he suggests. "Um. Yummy. Lots of nice winter spices. You could probably serve it hot or cold, topped with either crème fraîche or eggnog." Proposing a pumpkin mousse for dessert ("It's yummy!"), Loffler then rhapsodizes about the seeds. What, I wonder, does a real chef add to the seeds to prepare them? "Oh," he replies, "salt and pepper."

OVER IN SONOMA, Depot Hotel Restaurant owner and chef Michael Ghilarducci states authoritatively, "The most obvious [option] is pumpkin pie." He is only slightly taken aback that only one other chef has even mentioned such a pie, but rather that most have ladled up plenty of recipes for squashy soup. "Pumpkin soup is a funny thing," he muses. "It's more popular than it used to be, but I find that a good, old-fashioned minestrone sells better anytime."

Ghilarducci also suggests whipping pumpkin in with mashed potatoes, as well as mixing the pulp with stiff egg whites, butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg as a creamy filling for a hollowed-out butternut squash. His most immediate ideas exhausted, Ghilarducci admits, "There's not much you can do with a pumpkin."

You could, I suggest reasonably, turn one into a carriage.

"I'm not that good a cook," he laughs.

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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