Search This Blog

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Great Pumpkin

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: What with Thanksgiving looming, let’s skip dinner and move right into dessert – or make dinner a little more interesting with a look at the old-fashioned uses of that favorite fall gourd, the pumpkin, as I noted in a Metroland piece a dozen years ago.


IT’S NOT EXACTLY ON THE ORDER of Hallowe’en pumpkin smashing, but the noble gourd rated a mention in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor as those titular wives plotted to humiliate the fat, randy Falstaff.  “Go to, then,” says Mrs. Ford, as her friends help her set up an assignation. “We’ll use this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpion; we’ll teach him to know turtles from jays.”

The Greeks called it a “pepon,” or large melon; this got Gallicized into “pompon” before Shakespeare got hold of it. Early American settlers changed the second syllable to “-kin,” itself a version of the German “-chen,” and still used as in instrument of maternal torture in such formations as “my little lamb-i-kin.”

For all that European travel, the pumpkin itself seems to have originated in Central America; certainly the recipes that have endured are known to have crisscrossed the American continents for several thousand years. Now it’s grown in every continent except Antarctica.

Several varieties of gourd qualify to be called pumpkins. They belong to the family of curcurbita, which also claims the squash and cucumber. Cucurbita moschata look like butternut squash (and are related to them) and provide the meat you find in canned pumpkin products. Your jack o’ lantern is carved from cucurbita pepo, while the half-ton monsters are of the species cucurbita maxima. Cucurbita Mixta includes the cushaw melon, and there are many colorful varieties of pumpkin arriving on the scene. You’ve probably seen the white ones; red (rouge d'etant) and blue aren’t far behind.

Pumpkins need little garden coddling except for a long growing season (here in zone five, we start seeds under grow lamps in late spring) and the occasional turn of the fruit as it languishes in the field. As with other squash varieties, the blossoms make a worthy delicacy. They’re great as a sauté, deep fried, and in soup.

Were pumpkins part of that first Thanksgiving? Probably – or at least soon thereafter. They were too much a Native American staple to go unused. In fact, they proved useful to Native Americans as more than just food: you could weave mats and the like out of dried pumpkin.

Not surprisingly, then, some of the more interesting pumpkin recipes come from books that focus on this country’s indigenous population. Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations by Lois Ellen Frank (Ten-Speed Press, 2002) gives a well-informed overview of tradition and current practice, with recipes geared to the home cook.

Pumpkin Corn Soup with Ginger-Lime Cream
can be served in a small pumpkin, if you’re ambitious. Prepare your pumpkin meat by quartering the squash, removing seeds and fiber (but cook the seeds for snacking) and baking the quarters, inside down, for 45 minutes in a 350-degree oven. When the meat has cooled, scrape it from the skins and blast it through your food processor. Two pounds of pumpkin should yield two cups of cooked meat.

Cook three cups of corn kernels until soft, then send them through a food processor. Season the corn purée with two cloves of garlic (finely chopped), salt and white pepper, and add three cups of chicken stock. Bring this to a boil over medium heat, and add the pumpkin. Stir and cook for another ten minutes.

Peel and grate a tablespoon of fresh ginger, and combine it with the juice and zest of two limes. Add a half-cup of heavy cream. Use a dollop of this as a garnish when you serve the soup.

The recipe for Tesuque Pumpkin Cookies comes from the Tesuque Pueblo just north of Santa Fe. Cream together two cups apiece of sugar and shortening; add two cups of cooked pumpkin, two beaten eggs and two teaspoons of vanilla extract.

Separately combine four cups of flour, two teaspoons baking soda and small amounts of salt, nutmeg and allspice. Add the dry to the wet ingredients, a little at a time. Stir in two cups raisins and one cup chopped walnuts.

Drop the mixture by the tablespoonful on a greased cookie sheet, and bake for 12 to 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven.

Pumpkin pie began as a confection baked right inside the pumpkin; here’s a variation from a new and wonderful book titled Foods of the Americas by Fernando and Marlene Divina (Ten-Speed Press, 2004): Baked Pumpkin with Corn and Apple Pudding can be served with ice cream or whipped cream.

Working with a 350-degree oven, dry ½ cup cornmeal on a baking sheet, then toast 3/4 cup pine nuts. Cut around the stems of four four-inch pumpkins and save those tops; scrape out the seeds.

Combine three coarsely chopped green apples, ½ cup apple cider, and ½ cup milk in a saucepan and bring to a boil, then simmer for ten minutes. Pass the mixture through a sieve and purée the pulp, then add it to the liquid again over medium-high heat. Add the cornmeal, 1 cup of mixed dried fruit, ½ cup maple syrup (or honey) and season with mace, allspice and cinnamon. Stir it with a wooden spoon as it simmers for five to seven minutes, then add the pine nuts.

Distribute the pudding mixture among the pumpkins, replace the tops, and bake in an inch of water for 35 to 40 minutes, until the pumpkins are fork-tender. Serve warm.

This is also one of the few recipes that allows the more nutritious aspect of the pumpkin to come through – the gourd is rich in vitamin A and potassium.

At my house, several pumpkins decorate the porch right now and we’re about to embark on our annual fight over what’s to be cooked and what’s for show, with the opposing factions trying to claim the nicest-looking ones. Having but one child in the family means that the Court of Appeals is made up of three, with the tie-breaking vote almost invariably going to Mom. Still, I’ll try to have some cookies and soup on hand should you find yourself in the neighborhood. Just look for the porch that’s crawling with pumpkins.

Metroland Magazine, 21 October 2004

No comments: