Squash takes over

By Patricia Cobe, Senior Editor

By the time November rolls around, many restaurant kitchens are elbow-deep in squash. And it’s a good thing. With brightly hued summer fruits and vegetables in scarce supply, these hard-shelled edible gourds—which come in a bounty of shapes and sizes—add rich autumn color and flavor across the menu.

Justin Cucci, chef-owner of restaurants Root Down and Linger, both in Denver, Colorado, starts putting squash dishes on his menus early in November.

“Fall offers the most interesting Colorado produce, and squashes and pumpkins top the list,” he comments. One of Cucci’s favorite applications is Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Sage Pesto, enhanced with a brown butter sauce, wild mushrooms, crunchy pumpkin seeds and pecorino cheese. It offers a pleasing balance of flavors—the sweet nuttiness of the squash, heady, herbaceous sage, rich butter, earthy mushrooms and salty pecorino cheese—to create a successful seasonal dish, he explains. November also brings a Spaghetti Squash Salad with pomegranate seeds, baby arugula and champagne vinaigrette to Root Down’s menu.

“Our produce is about 70 percent organic,” Cucci  notes. “We have a great relationship with Grow Organics, a supplier here, so we start with what’s available in Colorado and then branch out.” That company aggregates produce from small local farmers, provides seasonal alerts on what’s available and delivers five days a week. And since there are a lot of greenhouses in the state, there’s good supply through the winter. Denver is also fairly close to Mexico and California, so Cucci can fill in with organic produce from those areas, but rarely goes further afield.

“If we can’t get something from within a few hours of here, we say why bother. We won’t import mangos from India just to make a menu item work,” he explains. Instead of falling in love with the exact ingredients of a dish, the kitchen is flexible enough to adapt by substituting other produce.

Cucci is finding that today’s high demand for organic is boosting availability. “More purveyors are supplying organic produce—even the larger distributors. We also work with FreshPoint [Sysco] and Yancy’s,” he reports. In fact, Cucci sources from 48 purveyors to make sure he gets the highest quality ingredients at the best prices. “We leverage our two restaurants so we can price our menu competitively with Denver restaurants that don’t focus on organic and sustainable,” he adds.

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