With vegetable-centric cooking on the rise, local chefs have turned to squash this autumn to make plant-based dishes that pop. Right now, nutrient-dense pumpkins and other squashes can be found in vegan restaurant dishes both savory and sweet.

At Union in the Press Hotel in Portland, chef Josh Berry added a vegan entree to his dinner menu this fall for the first time, and the star of the show is locally grown squash. The type of squash he uses for his squash curry – blue hubbard, buttercup, butternut, red kuri – changes depending on what he finds at the farmers market.

Inspiration for the dish comes from Switzerland, where Berry once worked in a traditional hotel restaurant. An affiliated Thai restaurant stood next door.

“We’d chop the squash up and have some left that weren’t perfectly square,” Berry said. The Thai chefs would take the imperfect pieces of squash, “toss them with a curry, and it was some of the best curry I’ve ever had,” Berry recalled.

Berry’s version, which will stay on the menu until January, uses various curry spices, coconut milk, local mushrooms and bok choy. Served with soba noodles, “it’s become incredibly popular,” Berry said.

Nearby at Grace, chef Adam Flood centered his fall vegan entree around spaghetti squash from Dandelion Spring Farm.

“We roast the spaghetti squash for 10 to 15 minutes so it’s not fully cooked,” Flood said, “so we can extract the separate strands. When we’re about to serve it, we heat a little garlic oil and then we cook it.”

The cooked squash strands are tossed with pesto Flood makes using African blue basil, nasturtium, chocolate mint and lemon bee balm that are all grown in his Biddeford garden. He adds confit cranberries, which he cooks sous vide so they cook but don’t burst. He plates the spaghetti squash with mashed celery root and dots of pine nut butter – picture peanut butter but made with pine nuts.

“People are raving about the dish right now,” Flood said.

Flood usually labels his menu’s vegan dishes, but he didn’t this time. As a result, he says customers who wouldn’t normally order a vegan dish are ordering it. He doesn’t shy away from meat himself. He even has a pig tattooed on his forearm. “I love foie gras,” Flood said, “and I could eat this dish and not think it’s vegan.”

The dish will be on Grace’s menu until December.

At the vegan-friendly Local Sprouts Cooperative Cafe in Portland, the kitchen staff always makes several vegan squash dishes at this time of year. One is the cafe’s butternut squash soup – winner of multiple awards at the Common Ground Country Fair.

“The squash is roasted and cooked down with apples and sometimes carrots and onions and coconut milk,” worker-owner Leslie Hogan said. “We don’t use any very strong spices because we really want that butternut flavor to come out. It’s pureed and really creamy like a bisque.”

Even before Local Sprouts switches to its fall menu, “people start requesting our roasted squash sandwich,” Hogan said. For it, whole wheat bread is slathered with vegan aioli and cranberry sauce and topped with roasted squash, grilled onions and organic greens. Customers who aren’t vegan can add cheddar cheese.

Local Sprouts’ vegan pumpkin bread and vegan pumpkin whoopie pies are available year-round, and as Thanksgiving approaches, the restaurant will begin taking special orders for vegan pumpkin pies.

At the all-vegan Olive Branch Cafe in Lewiston, customers can’t get enough of pumpkin dishes – including pumpkin-chickpea soup, pumpkin French toast, pumpkin pudding and pumpkin spice latte bites.

The cafe’s most popular pumpkin dish is cheesecake, which chef Kim St. Clair said “sells really, really well. As soon as we put it in the (dessert) case, we can barely keep it there.”

There’s no cheese in this cheesecake, though. It’s made from raw, soaked cashews, mashed banana and silken tofu mixed with pumpkin pie spices (see recipe).

The crust can be made using crushed graham crackers or ginger snaps, but St. Clair prefers to substitute gluten-free organic cereal in order to keep the dessert gluten-free. The cafe expects to have pumpkin dishes on the menu through Thanksgiving.

This season's vegan entree at Portland's Grace is roasted spaghetti squash with chef's garden pesto, confit cranberries, celery root and pine nut butter.

This season’s vegan entree at Portland’s Grace is roasted spaghetti squash with chef’s garden pesto, confit cranberries, celery root and pine nut butter. Gretchen Powers photo

At the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro in Portland, the desserts are always vegan, and at this time of year always include a pumpkin-based option. This fall, that’s pumpkin tapioca pudding.

“It’s pumpkin-y without being overly pumpkin-y. It’s sweet but not make-your-teeth-ache kind of sweet,” said Andy Cole, Green Elephant front-of-house manager. “Our chocolate mousse pie is extravagantly sweet and an indulgence. This is not that sweet or as intense as some sugary desserts.”

After selling well last fall, pumpkin tapioca pudding is back at the Green Elephant in Portland.

After selling well last fall, pumpkin tapioca pudding is back at the Green Elephant in Portland. Courtesy of Green Elephant

The pudding is sweetened with palm sugar, seasoned with pumpkin pie spices and garnished with pistachios and shredded coconut. It is served warm and will be on the menu throughout the winter.

Chef Berry at Union finds that the season for squash dishes is dictated by weather. “As soon as you get to the ‘I should put a coat on’ day, people are done with tomatoes and people want squash,” he said.

At Local Sprouts, Hogan said that restaurant pumpkin and squash dishes sell well in part because “for some reason, people find squash to be a daunting vegetable to deal with in their own kitchen.”

Thankfully, local chefs make it easy to eat squash and eat vegan, too.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

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Twitter: AveryYaleKamila