Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pumpkins are for more than jack-o'-lanterns

Jack-o’-lanterns were once large, hollowed-out turnips, carved hideously like a head. The original, though mythical, Jack-of-the-Lantern was illuminated by a burning ember from hell. It was to light the way for Jack, a rascal in Irish folklore who was condemned to wander the Earth, since although he had cheated the devil, he was too sinful for heaven. Jack’s wanderings became associated with Oct. 31, the ghostly night (the “eve” or “even”) before the religious feast of “All Hallows,” that feast now called All Saints’ Day.

The turnip jack-o’-lantern, lit by a candle, became a folk custom on “All-Hallows-Even” — “Hallowe’en” — in Ireland and Great Britain. Irish and British immigrants who came to America adopted the more convenient pumpkin for their jack-o’-lanterns.

For many pumpkins, jack-o’-lanterns are the only suitable role. Beautiful, round, orange, ribbed and big, but watery and bland, these pumpkins were bred for carving and lighting. They are best then composted.

The contemporary American pumpkin variety good for cooking, in my opinion, is the small “New England Pie.” But there are French and Italian heritage pumpkins worthy of the plate, too. And several American cousins of pumpkins, termed winter squash, are excellent in the kitchen.

Pumpkins and squashes are distinguished based on appearance, not botanical difference. Technically “fruit,” they come from four separate species of the genus Cucurbita, all of Middle-American origin. The four species each include both “pumpkins” and “squash.”

Available winter squashes for cooking in the manner of pumpkin include kabocha and butternut.

Kabocha squash resembles a European pumpkin, green, lightly ribbed and squat. They were grown in Japan for some 400 years, having been introduced there from the Americas by Portuguese sailors, and reintroduced to the Western Hemisphere in recent decades.

By contrast, smooth, tan-skinned and pear-shaped butternut squash is a 20th century development from Massachusetts.

These squashes have largely replaced the old-fashioned Hubbard squash. And, like Hubbards, both produce wonderful “pumpkin” pie.

Pumpkins and winter squash, with spices, are made into breads, cakes, pies and cookies or baked as a vegetable.

In France, pumpkins, herbed rather than spiced, are cooked into soups and gratins, and in Italy are stuffed into ravioli or worked into the pasta sauce.

For American Halloween, here’s a hearty, spiced soup creation of pumpkin or, preferably, winter squash. The recipe serves six.

Gingered "Pumpkin" Soup

1 medium (about 2 pounds) kabocha, butternut, or small “pie” pumpkin

1 medium-small onion, finely diced

1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 large or 2 medium sticks celery, minus leaves, finely diced

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

11⁄2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger

4 cups unseasoned chicken or vegetable broth

11⁄2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste

2 bay leaves

1⁄2 teaspoon savory or oregano

1⁄4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1⁄4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon minced parsley for finishing

Peel, seed and cut squash or pumpkin into 1⁄2-inch cubes.

In soup pot, fry onions, carrot and celery in olive oil, stirring frequently, until tender and just starting to brown.

Stir in garlic and ginger for 1 minute.

Add squash or pumpkin. Stir and fry 2 minutes.

Add broth, salt and dry seasonings.

Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until squash or pumpkin begins to break up. Add water if soup is too thick.

Mash vegetable somewhat with back of spoon.

Taste, and add salt as needed. Remove bay leaves.

The soup is best if made ahead, refrigerated and reheated to serve.

Stir in minced parsley before serving.

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