Cover image: Roasted cheese pumpkin with venison and foie gras terrine by Chef Stephan Bogardus. © Kaori Mahajan WhereNYC
Bottom Line: Back from the brink of extinction, the beloved, local Long Island Cheese Pumpkin is slowly starting to regain its former glory. The two-day event at Jimmy’s No. 43, which included cooks, local food lovers and brewers, kicked off the campaign to save a slice of true Americana.
Review: Versatile, seasonal, nutritious and sustainable. Pumpkins are the ultimate autumn superfood. Savory or sweet, roasted or puréed, they can do it all. At New York City’s locavore shrine Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village, chefs and brewers showcased their ordinary-to-extraordinary creations using the humble cheese pumpkin.
“Go on. Have more,” Chef Sterling Smith urged. It was already my second helping, but I was greedily contemplating a third. Sterling’s Cheese Pumpkin Chili was ticking all the boxes. Aromatic and vibrant, it had the heat from ras el-hanout, a Moroccan spice mix, and lean, tender buffalo meat that seemed to melt in your mouth. With every spoonful, I could taste the spices, tender veggies and meat mixing with that delicious, creamy pumpkin taste. Sterling looked at me waiting for a response, but all I could do was grin and keep eating. It was one of the best chilli I had ever had. His second dish, the Cheese Pumpkin Harvest Salad, was also packed full of flavor. Sweet, salty, spicy and citrusy. It was a perfectly balanced symphony of different textures and flavors of pomegranate seeds, candied ginger, wheat berries, jalapeno, and apricots. I wondered why more restaurants didn’t serve salads as exciting as this.
I chased it down with a pint of Blue Point Brewery’s Cheese Pumpkin Stout. Notoriously bitter, brewer Jim Richard aimed instead for a more refreshing kind of dark ale that could carry the pumpkin flavor. An organizer of beer dinners, he often chooses to pair his brews with unusual but compatible dishes, including his Hop Illusion IPA with carrot cake! His Cheese Pumpkin Stout, however, was less-over-the-top for my weary taste buds. It really went well with Sterling’s chilli and harvest salad.
Besides rustic dishes and local brews, the Long Island Cheese pumpkin has a place on the menu of high-end restaurants. Chef Stephan Bogardus of North Fork Table & Inn tantalized our palettes with decadent canapés of cubed roasted cheese pumpkin with venison and foie gras terrine and toasted pumpkin seeds.
A native of North Fork, Long Island and bow hunter, Stephan took over the reigns at the restaurant after working in some New York’s top end kitchens including the River Café. His passion for local produce including the cheese pumpkin and relationship with the North Fork’s farmers and producers certainly showed in his dish. Rather than whizzing the pumpkin into a purée, the cubes still had a lovely bite that contrasted well with the softness of the terrine. The toasted seeds, also giving a nod to the no-waste kitchen philosophy, added a another dimension to the hors d’œuvres. The clever addition of Aleppo chili gave a zing to the whole dish but still allowed the cheese pumpkin to speak for itself.
Finally, Maya of Maya’s Jams, born and raised in Germany, started her business by building relationships with local farmers and was one of the first independent campaigners to save the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin. Her jam had a lovely creamy, pumpkin sweetness that could go on any scone with a generous dollop of clotted cream.
With so many great dishes, beers and jams, it seems implausible why this pumpkin, which got its name from its round cheese-like appearance, is endangered. Interestingly, it had little to do with the pumpkin’s taste but rather mechanization. Like the fate of many flat pumpkins, according to organizer, Cheryl Frey, larger companies preferred rounder varieties because it was easier to roll them on conveyor belts. As farmers neglected to save the seeds and companies’ supplies dwindled, the cheese pumpkin began fading away. It didn’t go unnoticed by some. Local botanist and seed conservationist Ken Ettlinger, whose mother favored the Long Island Cheese for her pumpkin pie, took it upon himself to resurrect the pumpkin before it was too late. As more like-minded enthusiasts like farmer Stephanie Gaylor joined the cause, the pumpkin made a comeback.
“In order to save the pumpkin; you have to eat it, ” explained Laura Luciano of Outeast Foodie and one the event’s organizers. This means educating chefs to use it and encouraging farmers to grow them. It boils down to generating a buzz, and eventually demand will increase.
The future of the cheese pumpkin is hopeful but still remains unclear. The campaign to save it still has work to do because of decades of gradual neglect. Thanks to technology, consumers can track the cheese pumpkin at local Green Markets using the app, but it will take local-producer supporting supermarkets like Whole Foods to really help it take off. But for that to happen, Laura said that conserving seeds and educating chefs is the best way to ensure its continued success. “It has to be more than saving a pumpkin,” she said. “You have to generate awareness and enthusiasm.”
For more information on the cheese pumpkin events, visit Out East Foodie.