The Great Pumpkin
Nature’s timing is flawless. As if on cue, the winter squash and pumpkins appear just as the onslaught of zucchini starts to ebb. And they’re here to stay, their stout curves and painterly colors a pleasure to behold throughout the winter. Every year I stock up on the many varieties grown by Alice and Neil Fitzgerald of River Brook Farm in Cochecton, NY including international heirlooms like the brilliant orange Hubbard, the voluptuous Musque de Provence and the charmingly bumpy Marina di Chioggia. These all have a dense, creamy flesh that is equally delicious roasted, fried (pumpkin tempura!) or stewed.
Pumpkins and winter squash are domesticated species of the genus Cucurbita, and the difference among them is more culinary than botanical. Winter squash tend to have a finer texture and milder flavor, while pumpkins have a more pronounced flavor and flesh that is often orange. Though they are not completely interchangeable, for brevity’s sake I will refer to them from here on as pumpkins. They are a warm weather crop that can be stored well into the winter, provided they have been “cured”—a weeks-long drying process in a warm, dry spot (a sunny windowsill or greenhouse) during which the skin hardens and the flavors intensify. Unlike many root vegetables, pumpkins require little cosseting and can spend several months in a frost-free shed or on your kitchen counter, with nothing more than a thick layer of newspaper to keep them happy.
In addition to being delicious and hardy, pumpkins are an excellent source of nutrition, high in the vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids that support our immunity through the cold months and rich in beta-carotene, whose powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties soothe arthritis and help prevent the build-up of bad cholesterol. The seeds contain plenty of protein, so consider roasting them for a snack rather than dumping them in the garbage (or the compost heap).
If the closest you’ve come to a pumpkin is carving a jack o’lantern for Halloween or spicing up a can of puree for Thanksgiving pie, you might be intimidated by the prospect of transforming a big, gnarly one into dinner. Take heart, because a world of luscious discovery awaits you, and it all starts with this humble, thick-skinned vegetable. It’s as easy as roasting a whole one in the oven. At 375 degrees, it takes an hour or two for a big pumpkin to collapse into a soft heap of tawny flesh. Some varieties exude quite a bit of water, and it’s not a bad idea to let those drain in a colander after roasting. But whipped well or sliced and caramelized under the broiler, all it needs is a slick of peppery olive or a pool of good butter and a shower of flaky sea salt to make a satisfying side dish.
To transform this into a main event, thin it with stock and perhaps a little buttermilk, add curry and a few sprigs of cilantro, and you have a very nice, warming soup. Or combine it with flour and eggs to make tender gnocchi, perfect with a wild mushroom ragout. Or stir it into risotto with sage and butter, the ultimate comfort food. Or add cream, eggs and honey, pour it into ramekins and steam it in a water bath for a very luxurious pudding. Or bake it into your favorite quick bread with plump raisins and chunks of crystallized ginger. The possibilities are myriad and mouth-watering.
A small pumpkin, such as a five-pound Winter Sweet (a grey variety of the Japanese kabocha) easily serves four people. You can choose a much larger one to feed a crowd, and the recipe included here is so easy yet makes a dramatic presentation fit for company. Choose a fairly round, symmetrical pumpkin with the kind of dry, nutty flesh that’s ideal for roasting; when in doubt, check with the farmer. Then you simply carve a lid from the top—precisely as you would when making that jack o’lantern—scoop out the seeds and pulp, and scrape out enough flesh to leave the shell about three-quarters of an inch thick. What you’re left with is a gorgeous natural vessel that you can fill to the brim with all manner of treats before roasting it to tender perfection.
I prefer this dish to the slightly “kitschy” pumpkin soup served in a pumpkin shell that was popular a few decades ago, primarily because the stuffed version lets you eat much more of the whole vegetable. (And, you don’t have to worry about the leakage issue.) Inside is a flavorful mix of seasonal vegetables sautéed with some of the pumpkin itself and liberally seasoned with spices. This is mixed with a soft cheese—you can’t go wrong with the fresh mozzarella from Tonjes Farm Dairy in Callicoon—sealed with the pumpkin lid and roasted to a bubbling and fragrant stew in your oven. The shell stays intact, often softening enough to be entirely edible, but providing the structure necessary to cut and serve it in thick wedges. It’s a surprisingly rich and hearty dish, and one that’s best offset with an assertive salad of crisp bitter greens.
My recipe is vegetarian, but you could easily sneak in bits of chopped ham, crisp bacon or chorizo, or even add ground beef, pork or lamb. Feel free to use whatever vegetables you have on hand, or to skew the spices to suit your palate. This is really a technique more than anything and you can take it in whichever direction you choose—with lamb, black olives, fennel and feta; with chorizo, zucchini, corn and jalapeños; with tofu, mushrooms, spinach and sesame oil. It should keep you well fed all winter long.
Stuffed & Roasted Pumpkin
1 5-lb round pumpkin or winter squash
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 leek, white and light green parts only, thinly sliced
1 jalapeño, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon salt
½-1 teaspoon spicy pimentón
2 teaspoons toasted ground fennel seeds
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced pumpkin
1 cup diced tomato
1 cup diced fennel
1 cup fresh mozzarella or other melting cheese, shredded
4 Tablespoons grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Using a large, sharp knife, carefully cut into the top of the pumpkin to detach a lid, as you would for a jack o’lantern. Scoop out all the seeds and their pulp to make a clean cavity. Use a heavy spoon and/or knife to scrape out some of the inside flesh of the pumpkin, leaving the walls about ¾-inch thick. Dice this flesh and set aside.
Heat a large, heavy sauté pan over medium heat and pour in the olive oil. When it’s hot, add the shallots, garlic, leek and jalapeño, and stir together for a minute before adding the salt, pimentón and ground fennel seeds. Cook until lightly caramelized, about 5 minutes. Add the carrots, pumpkin, tomato and fennel and cook for another 10 minutes or until the liquid has cooked out. Remove from heat and stir in the cheeses.
Place the squash shell on a baking sheet lined with foil or parchment. Rub the inside with a little olive oil and sprinkle with salt, and then carefully spoon the vegetable mixture into the cavity. You can fill it all the way up. Set the lid on top and place in the oven.
Bake for 60 to 75 minutes, or until a metal skewer slides in easily through the side. You want the squash to retain its shape, so don’t bake until it’s so soft that it collapses (although it will still taste good if you accidentally do this).
To serve, slice the squash into wedges and arrange any filling that falls off back on top.