October 8, 2012
I’ve read numerous articles in defense of maligned vegetables, the most memorable being Frank Bruni’s praise of broccoli. I would argue that mushrooms—not broccoli—have the worst reputation and most fervent detractors. But what about that vegetable everyone loves yet only eats once a year in its singular, seasonal manifestation made from overly sweetened and spiced canned goods?
Of course, I’m referring to pumpkin and pumpkin pie. You may be thinking “Wait! We’re much more creative with pumpkin these days! I’ve seen pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin quick bread, even a pumpkin milkshake.” But delve a little deeper and you’ll realize that all of these dishes are made with canned pumpkin, lots of sugar, and “pumpkin pie spices.”
I rarely see fresh pumpkin or savory pumpkin dishes on menus, and that’s really a shame because fresh pumpkin is a versatile, unique, and tasty addition to a number of dishes. Also, fresh pumpkin puree is incredibly easy to prepare and it makes a much better pie than the canned stuff.
How to make fresh pumpkin puree for pumpkin pie: First, pick out a small, firm sugar pumpkin with even color. Cut the pumpkin in half with a heavy knife by inserting the blade into the center of the pumpkin and rotating it around (unless you have a machete and very good aim, I wouldn’t attempt just chopping it in half). Scoop out the seeds and as much of the stringy, gooey center as possible.
Place the pumpkin halves flesh side down on a baking sheet or roasting dish and pour a bit of water in the bottom of the pan (maybe a quarter of an inch high). Bake the pumpkin at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes to an hour until the flesh is soft. Cooking time will depend on the size of your pumpkin.
When the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh into a food processor and process until smooth. If using the puree in a pumpkin pie recipe that calls for canned pumpkin, you may want to reduce the cream or milk in the recipe because fresh pumpkin puree contains more liquid than canned pumpkin.
And remember, pumpkin doesn’t always have to be used for dessert!
The first savory pumpkin dish I tasted was in a Thai restaurant. It was a light vegetable curry with pumpkin, bell peppers, and some kind of leafy green (or maybe just basil leaves) in a thin, fish-sauce spiked gravy. I’d never experienced the texture of non-pureed pumpkin, so I was a little wary when the curry arrived. To my surprise, it wasn’t mealy or stringy but firm and creamy—a cross between sweet potato and butternut squash. I suspect pumpkin, or its cousin kabocha, would be a good addition to a beef stew.
Other savory pumpkin dishes that I’ve encountered are pumpkin soup, Dorie Greenspan’s pumpkin stuffed with bread and cheese, and Silvena Rowe’s pumpkin hummus. Most hummus variations still use chickpeas as the main ingredient, but this hummus is made only with pumpkin. To be fair, it shouldn’t really be called hummus since the word “hummus” in Arabic translates to chickpeas. It tastes a bit like hummus though and makes a fantastic, light appetizer when served with pita, crackers, or veggies.
Recently, I baked a fresh pumpkin to make this fantastic pumpkin cheesecake from Bon Appétit. Since the recipe called for only a cup of pumpkin puree, I had a ton of puree left over and immediately thought of Silvena’s hummus. Without her cookbook (Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume) on hand, I had to improvise. I remembered the main ingredients of pumpkin, za’atar, tahini, cumin, and lemon juice, and from there I adjusted the quantities until the hummus had the flavor and texture I was looking for.
For a garnish (and a snack!), I toasted the seeds from the pumpkin with some more za’atar and a little olive oil. While Silvena’s use of za’atar and cumin in the hummus is brilliant, you could definitely use different spices. Nutmeg or fenugreek come to mind.
I’m looking forward to future experimentations with fresh pumpkin—pumpkin butter, pumpkin bougatsa, Thai style pumpkin and red snapper curry, pumpkin-gruyere gougeres, etc.
Pumpkin seed topping:
For the hummus: Whisk together the lemon and tahini until a paste forms. Add a tablespoon or two of water to thin the paste to the consistency of thick béchamel. Stir in the pumpkin, spices, and salt to taste.
For the garnish: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the pumpkin seeds and dry them slightly with paper towels. Toss them with the olive oil, za’atar and salt and spread on a baking sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown, stirring occasionally.