SAVE THE SAVOURY PUMPKIN
by Sabine Eiche
Wander towards one of the fields at the Terra Nova Fruit Tree Sharing Farm, or drive along any of the roads running past the farms in Richmond at this time of year, and you will see hundreds of pumpkins lying on the ground, looking like huge orange playthings left behind by a horde of baby giants. They start to disappear with ever increasing rapidity as the 31st of October approaches. Pumpkins are as integral a part of Halloween as ghosts and trick-or-treating, and for many people their only purpose is to be carved into jack-o’-lanterns. By the 1st of November, the pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns are slung out with the rest of the household garbage.
What a waste! It makes someone like me, recently returned to Richmond after more than thirty years in Florence, shake my head in disbelief. The pumpkin had become my favourite autumn-winter vegetable in Italy, though it took me a long time to discover how delicious and nourishing it is. I’d seen it at my local Florentine farmers’ market for years, but I no idea how to prepare it. I, too, associated it mainly with jack-o’-lanterns.
My reservations about eating pumpkin changed some fifteen years ago. It was a crisp November day in Florence, and I was walking home from the library when I ran into a friend, who was a professional cook. We embarked on our usual culinary conversation, which consisted of me asking him for ideas for a good pasta sauce. He’d always suggest something mouth-watering, and I would immediately shop for the ingredients and try out his recipe. Then when we next met I would tell him how wonderful it had tasted.
This time my friend waxed eloquent about pumpkin, zucca in Italian. He’d made it the previous day, and it was divine, he sighed, a gift from the gods. I wasn’t entirely convinced but thought I would give it a try all the same. My first mistake was buying the pumpkin, or rather a chunk of it, at the supermarket rather than the farmers’ market. My friend had told me to peel it, chop it and throw it into a frying pan with some olive oil and shallots. It would melt into a sauce in 15-20 minutes, he assured me. I followed his instructions. The pumpkin stubbornly refused to melt and instead slowly fried. I added some water and tried squishing the chopped pieces with a wooden spoon. They shot right out of the pan. It wasn’t long before I ran into my friend again, and for the first time I had to tell him his recipe had been a total disaster. He was nonplussed. Try it again, was his advice.
Well, I had lost almost all faith in pumpkin sauce, but the Saturday after my disaster I happened to be at the farmers’ market, where round pumpkins and big, fat sausage-shaped pumpkins were everywhere to be seen. The colour of the pulp, Iwas to discover, is an important clue to its flavour and consistency when cooked, and that is why nearly every stand had a pumpkin cut open.
I went to my favourite farmer, an old woman who always gave you free (wormy) carrots and wilted celery stalks on top of your purchase. “I want to cook pumpkin,” I told her. She cocked her head like a sparrow, wondering what I was going to come out with next. “I don’t know how to do it,” I explained. “Ah, well,” she said, and rattled off the following as fast as machine-gun fire: “Olive oil, onion, garlic, pumpkin, salt, pepper, sage, parsley, lid.” And then she turned to the next customer. She hadn’t even given me the time to buy a piece of pumpkin from her.
So I wandered to another stand where there were lots of pumpkins, all shapes and all colours, and it was there that I found out that if I wanted my sauce nice and moist and not sweet, I should choose the pale-coloured pulp; if I wanted a sweeter, thicker sauce, or pumpkin as a side dish, I should take the darker, orange pulp. And if I wanted to fry it in slices, I should go for the sausage-shaped pumpkin. I pointed to the pale pumpkin and the farmer cut me a wedge weighing one kilo, with the seeds scooped out. I remember pumpkin used to cost 2000 lire the kilo, which became 1 euro after 2001, and which would now convert to approximately $1.40 the kilo. A bargain!
I brought all the ingredients home and put them on top of the counter and just stared at them. I was nervous about taking the first step. A few hours later I forced myself to get out my deep frying pan. I poured in a puddle of olive oil, added some cloves of garlic and set the pan over a low gas flame. I peeled the pumpkin, cut it into small pieces and slid them into the pan. Then I added a few fresh sage leaves, salt and pepper. Finally I chopped a handful of parsley and threw it on top. With a lid over the pan, the ingredients transformed themselves into a sublime pumpkin sauce in a matter of 20 minutes. I let everything cool for about half an hour, and only then did I taste it. A miracle! My friend the cook was right. It was food straight from the gods. In fact, it was so good, I gobbled it up without waiting for the pasta.
You can also use the sauce for pumpkin risotto. Just make a plain risotto and stir in the pumpkin sauce towards the end. Let it stand at least five minutes to give the flavours a chance to develop. The colours will beguile the eye, and the taste will leave you hungering for more.
Another possibility is to make a sweet and sour pickled pumpkin. I used the recipe in the following link, although I ended up doubling the quantity of vinegar to have enough liquid to cover the pumpkin: http://www.spruce.ca/food/pickledpumpkin.htm.
Hopefully, if you learn to love the savoury pumpkin as I did, more of you will want to eat it even after Hallowe’en, and the farmers will continue to offer them for sale throughout the autumn. Last year I was nonplussed that on the 1st of November pumpkins seemed to have disappeared from the stores. Only after much searching was I able to find one market that still sold them. Even then, I almost missed them because they were hidden well out of sight in a back room. Let’s save the savoury pumpkin!