You may not know this, but New Yorkers have been eating the wrong squash for a long time. But that’s about to change as more and more city restaurants are substituting the Long Island cheese pumpkin for the ubiquitous butternut and acorn squashes. And not just because it’s a local variety, it also tastes really good.
“I’m using it, because I do everything I can to source unconventional strains,” says Andrew Corrigan, executive chef at Cookshop in Chelsea. “But first and foremost it has to be delicious. Heirloom strains always have so much more flavors and unique qualities.” Corrigan values the LICP for its smooth texture and deep nutty flavor. And he buys them from Invincible Summer Farm in Southold on the North Fork.
Invincible Summer is run by Steph Gaylor and Cheryl Frey who, as part of their Long Island Regional Seed Consortium, started the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project in 2015 with the goal of reviving the vegetable. Once widely grown and consumed on Long Island, the pumpkin nearly went extinct after seed catalogs stopped selling the seeds by the ’90s. Thanks to one man, seed saver Ken Ettlinger, who just wanted to once again eat a pumpkin pie just like his mother made, the pumpkin was revived and is now moving from decorating a porch back to the pie pan.
Corrigan is part of a restaurant group whose eateries feature LICP. At Cookshop you can try roasted Long Island cheese pumpkin in a baked lasagna. At Vic’s it’s filling tortellini, and at Hundred Acres, it’s a base for hummus. The staff and the customers are very enthusiastic. “They understand the importance of expanding biodiversity,” he says. “It’s the responsible thing to do in regard to agriculture.”
Kitchen Cultivars, an effort by Glynwood Farm in the Hudson Valley in conjunction with the Hudson Valley Seed Library, joined the cheese pumpkin crowd and in 2016 helped promote the varietal to farms in their area, and got local restaurants on board to serve it. Its current promotion, which runs until the end of the week, February 6, reached into Manhattan; Michael Anthony, chef at Gramercy Tavern, has put a cheese pumpkin soup on his tavern lunch menu that’s served with a pork belly torta with avocado and cabbage salsa verde.
“This is awesome,” says Anthony. “It’s exciting that people learn the name of a crop that Long Island owes its history to.” An early part of Anthony’s career included a stint in Japan, where vegetables have local importance. “I studied the nature of how over hundreds of years a specific protected varietal is celebrated. It’s crossed, grown and eaten, so it’s specific; it’s connected to a region.” He adds: “It’s great because it’s defining the region through its food, and Long Island is one of the most identifiable food regions in our country.”
Once the special is finished, Anthony expects to keep finding ways to put LICP on the menu. “I’m fired up about this idea, to be able to create awareness of a vegetable that was kind of forgotten,” he says. “It’s not about exclusivity. It’s about people becoming more familiar with the names and the growing methods and the traditions of seed saving. It’s all good when we talk about diversity. It’s a great squash; it’s oriented toward cooking. It’s got great flavor, beautiful color and texture. It’s just flat out interesting.”