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A passion for pumpkin
(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- Perhaps it's for the best that we don't retain all our holiday traditions from the past. If we did, it would mean that when celebrating Halloween we would be crouching, with unsafe knife in hand, ready to carve into a small, insignificant-looking turnip. Hardly an impressive visual. The turnip is bland-looking and small, while the pumpkin is immense and handsome, a voluptuously globular hulk, beautifully ribbed and vibrantly colored. It's this beauty that every year, at the end of October, millions gouge into in order to create a gap-toothed face, fit for Halloween merrymaking.
Where did this tradition begin, anyway? The story goes that in the 1700 and 1800s, the Irish celebrated a holiday that featured a hollowed-out turnip with a candle or ember inside. The tradition for this was based on an old Irish legend involving a notorious drunkard named Jack. Jack failed to get into heaven because he was too greedy and then he was banned from hell because he had tricked the devil. As a consolation, the devil threw Jack a lighted ember from hell. Jack stuck it into the turnip he was eating and used it to light his path as he continued to look for his final resting place.
This custom may also have been reflected in the ancient druidic practice of lighting bonfires while seeking protection against witches and spirits of the dead who haunted the earth on the harvest festival called Samhain. Later, big bonfires, parades and people dressing up as saints, devils and angels became part of the festivities of All Saints Day or All Hallows Eve, a holiday that honored all the saints. The contracted corruption of these words became the holiday we celebrate as Halloween with its traditions of trick-or-treating, ghosts, goblins and pumpkins fashioned into grinning jack-o'-lanterns.
When the Irish fled the potato famine in the 1840s, they brought the custom of Jack's turnip lantern to the United States. Pumpkins, which were among the foods introduced to the early settlers by the Indians, were more abundant than turnips in the New World, so a pumpkin was substituted for the turnip.
At first, the Colonists weren't beguiled by this hard, tough squash. (Pumpkins come under the heading of winter squash, and are classified as a strain of Cucurbita pepo, a category that also includes summer squashes, cucumbers, melons and gourds.) In fact, the Colonists had to overcome their old-country prejudice that pumpkins were fit only for peasants. But they had no choice. It was a matter of survival or disaster. During those first harsh winter months, there simply was no rich harvest of gastronomical pleasures on which to feast. Pumpkins -- with their thick, hard skins -- were the only fresh winter vegetable available and could be stored safely for months. The pumpkin soon became a cook's faithful ally, and the Pilgrims learned to like it -- boiled, roasted and dried.
Though pumpkin pie wasn't served at the first Thanksgiving Day table, it was one of the dishes offered on the second Thanksgiving. It might raise a few quizzical eyebrows today for the early version was prepared quite differently. Cooks would saw off the pumpkin's top and remove the slimy seeds and tangled strings. The cavity would be filled with milk, fragrant spices and sweetened with honey or maple sugar, then baked whole until tender.
Pumpkin soup was equally popular among the Colonists. And there was one other happy reappearance on the table of this New World product, and that was when the Colonists had a touch of inspiration and turned the dense orange flesh into good old, thirst-quenching pumpkin beer. Apparently pumpkins were one of those admirable foods in which every part -- except the stem -- could be utilized. Even the mature seeds were roasted to make a tasty snack to tide one over between meals. Pumpkins not only made their way in various guises into every part of the cuisine but into 17th century poetry as well.
Consider this Colonial bit of doggerel: "We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon. If it were not for pumpkin, we should be undoon."
The pumpkin was prized not only by the early settlers but elsewhere in the world as well. And today cultivated palates in France enjoy it as a velvety smooth soup. It is one of the most popular vegetables in Eastern Europe, especially when cooked with cream and herbs. In Morocco, it's offered as an appealing salad with welcome accents of cilantro, garlic and hot pepper sauce to boost flavor. Italians use it in risotto and also stuff ravioli with pureed pumpkin, cover it with a cream sauce and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. In the Caribbean it makes a tasty chowder, while Brazilians turn it into a robust beef soup full of cubed potatoes, carrots and tomatoes.
Mini Pumpkin Soup
Makes 6 servings.
Single-serving pumpkins make whimsical containers for soups. Hollow out the shells and cook the flesh with onion and pimientos for seasoning.
Cut through top of each pumpkin to make lid about 3 inches in diameter. Trim undersides of lids so they are 1/2 inch thick. Reserve pumpkin flesh. Scrape out and discard seeds and strings from pumpkins.
With short, sharp knife, hollow out pumpkins to leave 1/2-inch-thick shells. Cut up any large pieces of pumpkin flesh. Set aside tops, shells and flesh.
In 3- to 4-quart pan over medium-high heat, cook onion in butter until limp, about 10 minutes, stirring often.
Add pimientos, pepper, broth and pumpkin flesh. Bring to boil over high heat.
Simmer, covered, until pumpkin is very tender when pierced, about 15 minutes.
In blender or food processor, whirl soup until smoothly pureed. Return to pan with milk. Over medium-high heat, stir soup until steaming.
Fill pumpkin shells with boiling water. Drain. Place shells on plates, fill with soup.
Top with lids. Offer nutmeg to grate into soup.
Sauteed Pumpkin with Tomatoes, Herbs and Dry Goat Cheese
(Courge au Tomates et Chevre)
Makes 4 servings.
Pumpkin is eaten throughout France in dishes ranging from soup to sautes and casseroles. In the Vaucluse, pumpkin is sauteed with lots of garlic and herbs, then left in a hot oven for about an hour to get tender, creamy and crusty on top like a gratin. This pumpkin dish is rich with the flavors of Catalonia and the Midi: fresh rosemary, sweet paprika and dry goat cheese for grating.
Crush garlic with pinch of salt until it forms paste. Set aside.
Saute sliced pumpkin with onion in big heavy skillet in 2 tablespoons olive oil.
When lightly browned and half tender, add tomatoes, wine, half of rosemary, paprika and half of garlic paste.
Cover skillet and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until pumpkin is tender.
Remove cover and increase heat, cooking and stirring occasionally until liquid has nearly all evaporated and pumpkin is quite tender.
Toss remaining garlic paste into hot vegetables. Cook 1 to 2 minutes and add remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, if needed. Add cheese and continue to toss as cheese melts.
Serve hot, sprinkled with reserved chopped rosemary.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Almost everyone seems to make pumpkin pie out of a can these days, and canned pumpkin pie can be just fine. But pie made with the meat of a fresh pumpkin (not a stringy jack-o'-lantern, but a tasty eating variety, like the sugar baby) attains a silky, custard-like perfection. For those who prefer using canned pumpkin, directions are in the variation below.
To prepare crust, sift together flour and salt in large bowl.
Cut in shortening with pastry cutter or 2 knives until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add up to 5 tablespoons ice water as needed, 1 tablespoon at time, mixing until dough holds together. Form into ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.
To prepare filling, cut pumpkin into large pieces, discarding seeds and pith.
Fit large pot with steaming rack, add enough water to come up to (but not over) rack and bring to boil. Place pumpkin on rack, cover and steam until pulp is soft, about 30 minutes. Cool.
Scrape pulp from skin into food processor and puree. Add sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, milk, eggs and salt and pulse until mixture is very smooth.
Roll out dough into 12-inch round on floured surface. Ease into 9-inch pan. Trim edges, allowing 1/2-inch overhang, then fold edge under and crimp or flute. Fill with pumpkin filling.
Bake at 425 degrees 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees and continue baking until filling is set, 30 to 40 minutes longer. Let cool before serving.
Variation: For canned pumpkin pie, substitute 1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin for steamed pumpkin pulp. Follow recipe, but increase cinnamon to 1 1/2 teaspoons, ginger to 1/2 teaspoon and cloves to 1/4 teaspoon.
Makes 3 to 4 servings.
These crisp and flavorful waffles can be prepared with other baked winter squash or baked sweet potatoes. Prepare the waffles in a Belgian waffle iron or regular waffle iron according to manufacturer's directions.
Preheat nonstick waffle iron according to manufacturer's directions. If instructions specify, lightly coat iron with nonstick cooking spray.
In large bowl, whisk pumpkin with butter, egg, egg white and milk. Beat until just combined.
In small bowl, combine flour with baking powder, pumpkin pie spice and salt.
Stir into pumpkin mixture, stirring until just smooth. (Batter can be prepared 1 hour in advance.)
Pour batter into center of each waffle iron square and bake according to manufacturer's directions until golden and crisp.
Remove and serve immediately with maple syrup. (Waffles can be prepared in advance and kept warm in oven at 275 degrees about 15 minutes, which will make them crisper.)
Note: If pumpkin pie spice is not available, substitute mixture of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice.
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Makes 2 cups.
Rinse and clean seeds well. Remove pumpkin fibers. Place seeds in large pan along with water and salt and bring to boil.
Reduce heat and simmer until salt is dissolved, then simmer 30 minutes. Drain. Do not rinse seeds.
Spread seeds out on baking sheet. Bake at 300 degrees 45 minutes, stirring occasionally so seeds toast evenly. During last 10 minutes, test 1 seed by breaking it. Seed should be dry and lightly toasted.
Store in jar when cool.
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