If Linus had fed Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the rest of the gang a supper of homemade pumpkin dishes before trick-or-treating, they might not have mocked him for choosing to spend Halloween awaiting the "Great Pumpkin." After a warm, comforting meal of pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin pie with a dollop of whipped cream, how could they blame their generous host for wanting to honor his favorite ingredient instead of gathering candy with them? Now if he could only put down his blanket long enough to don a pair of oven mitts....
Linus had the right idea, anyway. Pairing the word "great" with "pumpkin" is common among those who are familiar with the culinary virtues of this autumn gourd. Native Americans taught the early settlers how to cook freshly harvested pumpkins into savory and sweet dishes. Today its flavor and versatility are enjoyed in soups, stews, casseroles, breads, pancakes, and desserts as humble as pie or as elegant as crème brûlée.
Among the only truly seasonal crops left, pumpkins lend vibrant color to farmers' markets and supermarket displays in October and November. Shoppers nostalgic for jack-o'-lantern carving or Thanksgiving-pie baking shouldn't resist the urge to scoop up a few. But there are some key differences to keep in mind: First of all, jack-o'-lanterns are practically inedible except for those seeds, which are delicious roasted and sprinkled with salt.
For cooking or baking, the best choices are pie pumpkins, also called sugar pumpkins, which are round and deep orange with tender, succulent flesh. Or you might want to go with miniatures or "jack be littles," dwarf versions of pie pumpkins, which are ideal for stuffing. Dickinson pumpkins, a pale orange variety that can reach 600 pounds or more, are also popular. For some dishes, canned pumpkin purée works just fine.
For obvious reasons, you'll want to steer clear of the 600-plus pounders. That is, unless you happen to be a grower the likes of Craig and Brittany Weir, who set the world record for biggest pumpkin at this month's Topsfield Fair in Massachusetts. Their ungainly gourd weighed in at a whopping 1,260 pounds. Now, that's a lot of pie. When they, or you, tire of the same old recipes, it's time to try something more unusual. These main-dish recipes - for pumpkin ravioli and pumpkin risotto - will get you off to an excellent start.
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon tamari or soy sauce
1 teaspoon minced fresh sage
1-1/2 cups canned pumpkin puree
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus additional cheese for garnish
1/2 cup fine dried bread crumbs
Salt and freshly grated black pepper, to taste
2 large egg whites
4 sheets fresh lasagna dough, each 16 by 24 inches (found in a gourmet-food store) or 24 wonton wrappers (available in supermarkets)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
16 fresh sage leaves, chopped
To make the ravioli: In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter with the oil. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté for about 10 minutes, or until tender. Stir in the tamari and sage, raise heat to high, and cook, stirring constantly, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl. Let cool, then stir in the pumpkin, cheese, and bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper. Blend in 1 egg white and set aside.
Cut the pasta dough into 24 4-inch squares. Spoon a tablespoon of filling onto the center of each square. Brush the edges with egg white, fold over to form a triangle, and press edges together to seal. (If using wonton wrappers, place one on top of the other, brushing egg white on edges.) Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before cooking. (They can be stored overnight.)
Bring a large pot filled with water to a boil. Add salt to taste and return to the boil. Gently lower the ravioli into the pot and cook until al dente. This will take about 3 to 4 minutes, depending on pasta.
The ravioli are done when they float to the surface. Using a slotted spoon, lift out the ravioli and drain well, then arrange on a warmed serving platter.
To make the sage butter, melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add sage and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Drizzle sage butter over the ravioli. Serve with additional cheese and black pepper.
Serves 4 to 6.
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 to 2 fresh or dried red chilies, seeded and finely chopped
1 pumpkin, preferably a sugar pumpkin, about 1 pound, peeled and roughly chopped
2-1/4 cups arborio rice
5 cups hot chicken or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons chopped sage
1-1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano
Salt and pepper
Heat half the butter in a large saucepan and add the onion. Cook gently for 10 minutes until soft but not colored. Stir in the red chilies and cook for 1 minute. Add the pumpkin and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.
Stir in the rice to coat it with the butter and vegetables. Cook for 2 minutes to toast the grains. Add the heated stock, a large ladleful at a time, stirring until each ladleful is absorbed into the rice. Continue adding stock and cook until the rice is tender and creamy but the grains are still firm and the pumpkin is beginning to disintegrate. This should take about 20 minutes depending on the type of rice used. Taste and season well with salt and pepper, then stir in the chopped sage, the remaining butter, and the Parmesan cheese.
Cover the pan and leave the risotto to rest for a few minutes, then serve garnished with sage sprigs and Parmesan shavings.
- Adapted from 'The Pumpkin Cookbook' (Hamlyn, a division of Octopus Publishing, London)