Get Gourd-geous

BY ROBIN BARR SUSSMAN

Voluptuously shaped, uniquely textured and beautifully colored, gourds are a staple in autumnal centerpieces and on dinner tables, while their tasty cousins, pumpkins and squash, shine on the dinner plate. Houston chefs have the perfect recipe for fabulous fall eating showcasing squash and pumpkins in creative entrées, starters and desserts.

SWEET WINTER SQUASH

Of all the varieties—acorn, spaghetti, butternut and Mexican chayote—executive chef John Watt of Italian standby Prego has a thing for butternut squash, which stays on the menu all year in many guises.

“I threw butternut squash in the mix for variety when everyone was just serving potatoes. But it really caught on and now we can’t take it off,” says Watt.

Prego makes homemade pasta including the ravioli di zucca stuffed with butternut squash and served in a brown butter sage sauce with whole toasted walnuts. It’s rich and sweet enough to stand in for dessert.
Watt looks for the bigger, taller squash, “which seem sweeter,” he says. He avoids using too many spices directly on the squash to keep the flavors pure.

“It’s naturally sweet and has a versatile texture for using in many recipes. I only season with salt and pepper,” says Watt.

He balances out the sweet flavor of caramelized butternut squash risotto by using pancetta, jumbo Gulf shrimp, scallions and herbs for a knockout dish. Sometimes, he tops pizza with roasted butternut squash, mushrooms and scallions, and he always offers butternut squash as a side dish, either roasted and cubed, or pureéd (mashed).


SOUP TO NUTS

Luxe butternut squash soup appears on many menus this fall. Don’t miss the honey butternut squash soup with cayenne-toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and allspice crème fraîche at Brennan’s, extraordinary for its velvety texture and warm fall flavors. Executive chef Danny Trace also serves spaghetti squash—a faux pasta trick—seasoned with fresh herbs and butter on his Winter Vegetable Palette.

Heartier is the Black Hill pork shank osso buco atop butternut squash gnocchi pasta. Trace says the sweetness of the gnocchi is accented when caramelized in a sauté pan with a touch of garlic, fresh sage, sugarcane vinegar and nutmeg.

“These combinations are about as comforting as fall comfort food gets. It’s a perfect pedestal for this great cut of braised Texas pork,” says Trace.

Satsuma-glazed mahi mahi is served with creamy butternut squash and sage risotto, resulting in multiple layers of flavors. The Arborio rice is cooked in shellfish stock steeped with lemongrass and the squash pureé incorporated.

“For the finale, roasted diced butternut squash tossed in sesame oil and sage is added, and then the risotto is dusted with Parmesan cheese,” says Trace.

PRIMED FOR PUMPKIN

Mark’s American Cuisine is rolling out “munchkin pumpkin” appetizers stuffed with seafood, a mix of vegetables or a truffle combination. Chef Mark Cox serves the pumpkins each fall and says he likes to change the theme yearly. TQLA crusts its salmon fillet with toasted pumpkin seeds for flavorful texture. This
amped up Southwestern dish is served with fried green tomatoes, green chile mashed potatoes and a tequila lime butter sauce. Chef John Buchanan of Trevisio swirls bright green pumpkin seed oil over butternut squash soup and garnishes it with toasted pumpkin seeds.

“I started using pumpkin seed oil when I worked at Café Annie because it adds a toasty nutty flavor,” he says.

Robin Barr Sussman
Author: Robin Barr Sussman