North Hatley, Que. – Chef Francis Wolf got up early on his day off, loaded 800 pounds of winter squash into his SUV and headed for Montreal.
Not the big orange pumpkins that have taken over the market this month, but strange and beautiful orange, yellow and green sculptures with knobs and ribs and spiralling stems. He was delivering the last of his harvest to Societé Orignal, the Montreal-based rare-foods company that supplies many of the province’s best restaurant kitchens with unknown or overlooked local products.
Wolf, the chef de cuisine at one of the most prestigious restaurants in the Eastern Townships, grew the rare and unusual heirloom squashes in his garden this summer. By mid-September his yard had been taken over by jumbo Pink Bananas that grow to 40 pounds apiece and ancient crooknecks with hooked handles that were first cultivated by the Iroquois more than a hundred years ago.
In his 13 years at Le Hatley, the restaurant at Hovey Manor, Wolf has earned a reputation for elevating local, seasonal vegetables to celebrity status. For weeks now he has been “playing” with winter squash for his dinner menus – oven-roasting it, grilling it, puréeing it, dehydrating it and turning it into an aromatic powder.
Wolf is stretching the meaning of eating local. He doesn’t just seek out the freshest local vegetables from organic farmers in and around this village 140 kilometres southeast of Montreal, he looks for new and inventive ways to use every part of them. Squash is often mistakenly pegged as bland, Wolf says. But he finds the flavours exciting, changing as they do from variety to variety and depending on how a dish is prepared. He sees riches not just in the squash flesh, but in its seeds and peel, too.
“It’s always fun to try new vegetables. But it is especially exciting – and challenging – to find new ways of using familiar ingredients,” he said, as he laid out a serving tray of squash chips, powders, candy and oils for his visitors to try. “At first I was just making as much muffins and soup and pie as my kids would eat, but then I began playing around in the kitchen at the restaurant. I wanted to find new ways to coax different tastes out of the same squash.”
Wolf doesn’t mask squash in a flurry of cumin, cinnamon or ginger, like people tend to do. By contrast he lets the vegetable’s flavours and textures speak for themselves. He roasts squash in the oven to turn the skin crunchy. He simmers thin slices in sugar syrup and then dries them to make candy. He juices pumpkin to add to his soups instead of chicken broth. He lays thin strips of squash in the dehydrator, dries them till crispy and then pulverizes the hardened slices in a blender to yield an intensely flavoured squash powder.
For a quintessentially fall first course at Restaurant Le Hatley recently, he gave squash soup celebrity treatment. Thin slices of roasted squash were laid in a fan-like shape at the bottom of the bowl. At the table, the waiter poured the squash soup over this and then finished with a garnish of shaved foie gras. Squash makes another appearance in Wolf’s autumn dinners, served as juice drizzled over a plate of Quebec sea urchins nestled in roasted fingerling potatoes. And there it is again, cut into tiny orange cubes of squash confit that have been simmered in duck fat and garnished with dried wild cranberries then drizzled with birch syrup.
Wolf’s fascination with squash began five years ago when he dug a potager to get his children involved in vegetable gardening. It was a 10-by-10-foot patch with cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans and squash. He sought out heirloom varieties such as Canada crookneck, a precursor of today’s butternuts, Table Queen and Knife River. He was surprised at how easy they were to grow and how much each vine yielded. But most exciting were the diverse textures and colours and flavours of the squashes he had grown. The Table Queen, with its drier flesh, proved excellent for making gnocchi. Pink Bananas, with their sweet, nutty taste and deep orange colour, are fabulous for pies.
“I like the sweetness and the density of squash. And I like how different and delicious all the different parts are,” he says.
AT A GLANCE
Le Hatley Restaurant is part of Manoir Hovey, 575 Hovey St., North Hatley, in the Eastern Townships. For more information, call (819) 842- 2424 or visit manoirhovey.com
Francis Wolf’s simple but sublime ideas for using the whole squash:
Roast them whole. Wolf says this a great technique for softer-fleshed squashes such as pumpkins and Pink Bananas. It prevents them from drying out. It also makes easier work of peeling squash, since the skin softens as it cooks.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Wash the squash and place it, whole and unpeeled, on a tray in the oven. Cook until tender. (This might take up to an hour or more, depending on the size of the squash. A good test for doneness is to poke the pumpkin with your finger. When it gives it’s done. Or pierce it with a knife.) When it’s cooked, cut open the pumpkin over a large pan or bowl, being careful to save the juices which have collected inside. When cool, cut away the peel, remove the seeds and mash the flesh for soup or pies or cakes. Or store in plastic containers or zippered plastic bags in the freezer for later use. Save the juices for soups or stews.)
Save the seeds. After roasting, save the seeds. Clean away the stringy membrane by washing them under running water. Lay the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet that’s been greased with vegetable oil. Toast them for 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or so, until golden and crunchy.
They will be too fibrous to eat just like that, but they are great for making squash-seed oil. In a high-speed blender, purée equal parts seeds and vegetable oil until smooth. Add a pinch of salt. Then strain the purée over a chinois or a sieve lined with paper towel or a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth. Let stand until the oil seeps through. Discard the pulp and save the nutty-flavoured oil in a clean bottle with a tight-fitting lid. Keep refrigerated. Use in vinaigrettes or over fish or poultry.
Peel and dice. Sauté the small cubes of squash in butter with minced garlic and a little salt, until tender.
Make juice. The best squashes for juicing are the sweeter varieties such as small pie pumpkins or butternut.
If you have a juicer, make juice with chunks of unpeeled squash (seeds removed).
Serve soup. Add the juice to puréed cooked squash instead of chicken broth for a super-concentrated squash flavour in soups. The natural starches in the squash juice will act as a thickener. Heat the soup over low heat so as not to alter the colour and flavour.
Make a creamy squash soup without any cream by puréeing roasted squash with the juices that collect when squash is roasted whole.
For an elegant presentation, present thin slices of roasted squash in the bottom of the bowl. Add wedges of roasted shallots for sweet flavour and silky texture or grilled radicchio cut into chiffonade for a hint of bitterness to balance the sweetness of the squash. Using a gravy boat or heat-proof pitcher, pour the soup over the vegetables in individual bowls right at the table at serving time. Garnish with a splash of apple cider vinegar or diced raw apples (use a tart variety such as Melba or Lobo) for a subtle acidic note.
Turn it to powder. Wolf uses the pulp that is left over when he juices squash to make an intensely-flavoured powder. He uses it to season salad dressing or to sprinkle over mashed potatoes. Or to give another layer of flavour to squash soup and even crème brûlée.
With a spatula, he spreads the pulp in the thinnest possible layers on the trays of a dehydrator and dries them for four to five hours. The crisp bits are then transferred to a high-speed blender and turned to powder which is stored in airtight jars. If you aren’t making juice and you don’t own a dehydrator, cut the squash, unpeeled, into ultra-thin strips using a mandoline and set them in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and dry in the oven, at the lowest setting, overnight, until crisp and dry. When cool, pulverize to a fine powder in a blender.
Turn the skin into “chips.” The peel of many varieties of squash is hard and tough. But in roasting it softens to a crispy, savoury treat. Chef Wolf says he especially loves the caramelized flavours of the browned skin at the bottom of a roasted squash. He scrapes away the cooked pulp with a spatula or a sharp knife then sprinkles the thin and crispy squash “chips” with sea salt and serves them just like that, or crumbled and sprinkled over beef tartare, or as a garnish for soup.
Eat candy. Raw squash is peeled and seeded then cut into very thin, long strips with a mandoline. The strips are lowered into a wide saucepan of heated simple syrup (made by combining equal parts sugar and water) and simmered over very low heat until tender (about 10 to 15 minutes). The tricky part is removing the soft strips from the syrup without breaking them. Wolf recommends the syrup never come to a boil and that the strips be carefully lifted with a small spatula and transferred to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Lay the candied squash strips onto the prepared baking sheet, being carefully not to overlap or crowd the pan, and dry them in the oven at the lowest heat for six to seven hours, until crispy and dry. Serve with chocolate ice cream or as a garnish for crème brûlée.