Most of us equate pumpkins with Jack-o-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies. We select pumpkins based on their shapes for carving scary eyes and mouths, and we turn to the canned variety for baking. Perhaps you have never contemplated cooking a fresh pumpkin or, if you have, the time involved in seeding, peeling, and cooking the thing just didn't seem worth the effort. And with the availability of Libby's brand 100 percent pumpkin, indeed a superior product, why bother.
And so it was for me. Indeed, many years ago, after making my first Thanksgiving pumpkin pie from fresh pumpkin, my kids pleaded with me to go back to the "canned" version. It was only after a memorable five-course, "pumpkin inspired" meal at restaurant La Zucca Magica (The Magic Pumpkin) in Nice, France, that I recognized the unique flavor and versatility of fresh pumpkin and vowed to cook with it more often.
Upon my return to St. Louis, I e-mailed La Zucca Magica, requesting the chef's recipe for Millefoglie, a heavenly pumpkin and cheese gratin that my husband Mike, my daughter Kayla and I swooned over that memorable evening in Nice. The owners, Marco Folicaldi and Rossella Bolmida, were kind enough to provide the recipe along with this explanation for their pumpkin-themed restaurant: "Pumpkin is a vegetable but also something more, a touch of magic," Rossello wrote. "It is a vegetable which brings nourishment to even the poorest during the winter months and it is easily preserved and dried. The pumpkin has a thousand-year history and has accompanied the man on all continents."
The gratin (recipe below) was the first of many forays into a world of pumpkin cuisine far beyond Thanksgiving pies. My kids have even grown fond of my fresh pumpkin pie.
Now is the best time to begin your pumpkin journey. Autumn is pumpkin harvest season, which means both sweet and pie pumpkins are available in local grocery stores. These cooking pumpkins range in size from 2 to 6 pounds, and will be available from now through Thanksgiving. They should feel heavy for their size, and their skin should be unblemished. As for the larger pumpkins, use them only for Jack-o-lanterns or fall decorations. They are too thin-skinned and give off too much liquid when cooked.
The flavor of pumpkin lends itself beautifully to both savory and sweet dishes. It can be combined with garlic and spices to make a great appetizer spread for toasted baguette slices. Peeled, cubed and roasted, it can be tossed into salads and stews. It can also be cooked on the stove until tender, seasoned with both sweet and tart spices as in the recipe below, and served alongside roasted meats, chicken and vegetables. And for dessert, roasted pumpkin cubes can be added to bread pudding or rice pudding.
Pumpkin is one of the healthiest vegetables in the squash family. The deep orange color of the flesh makes it a good source of beta-carotene, which is believed to reduce the risk of many cancers, and antioxidants, which help to strengthen our immune system. Pumpkin is also very low in fat and calories, and high in potassium.
Additional nutrients, such as protein, iron and dietary fiber, come from the seeds, which when toasted, are delicious out of hand and are great sprinkled on salads or finely ground in sauces. And because the pumpkin is such a close relative of the acorn and butternut squash, you can substitute any one of them for the other in most recipes.
I was surprised to learn that pumpkin is the Jewish squash. In my continuing search for new cooking ideas, I discovered that our ancestors, especially the Sephardim from Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Bucharan, have cooked with pumpkin for centuries. Traditionally, pumpkin dishes are served as part of festive holiday meals on Rosh Hashana and Sukkot. Moreover, a whole pumpkin stuffed with lamb, rice and vegetables -- known as Dolme Kadoo Havoee -- is the Persian version of cholent. It is cooked overnight on Friday on a low heat and served for lunch on Saturday following services.
Sukkot, which celebrates, among other things, the final agricultural harvest, begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 2, and continues through Friday, Oct. 9. The week- long holiday is the perfect time to showcase a delicious pumpkin dish and to bring some pumpkin magic into your Sukkah.
Best wishes for a beautiful and bountiful season.
Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of two. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pumpkin and Celery Root Gratin
(from restaurant La Zucca Magica in Nice, France)
- Olive oil for oiling gratin dish
- 1 teaspoon flour, for sprinkling in gratin dish
- 3/4-1 pound seeded, peeled and thinly sliced pumpkin
- 3/4 pound peeled and thinly sliced celery root (or Yukon gold potatoes)
- 4 ounces Grana Padano or fresh Parmesan cheese, grated*
- 4 ounces Cappiello (smoked mozzarella cheese) **
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 cup milk or cream
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Lightly oil an 8x10 gratin dish or 8-inch square Pyrex dish with oil and sprinkle with flour.
Cover the bottom of the baking dish with a single layer of pumpkin slices. Lightly sprinkle slices with salt and pepper. Scatter a quarter of the grated Grana Padano over pumpkin.
Add a single layer of celery root slices over pumpkin. Lightly sprinkle with salt and pepper. Scatter a quarter of the grated Grana Padano over celery root.
Add another layer of pumpkin slices, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and top with another quarter of Grana Padano and half of the Cappiello. Follow with a layer of celery root slices, salt and pepper, and remaining Grana Padano cheese.
Add one more layer of pumpkin slices, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and top with remaining Cappiello cheese.
Heat one cup of milk or cream and pour over pumpkin and celery root layers in dish. Cover dish with foil paper and cook in preheated oven for 40 minutes.
Remove foil paper from dish and set under broiler for about 3-5 minutes, or until top of gratin is golden brown. Transfer dish from oven to cooling rack and let sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.
Makes 6-8 servings.
* Grana Padano is a semi-hard cow's milk cheese aged for 9 months. It is available at DiGregorio's Italian market (5200 Daggett Avenue) on the Hill. ** Cappiello is available in the special cheese sections at Schnucks and Dierberg's.
- 1 pound seeded, peeled, and cubed pumpkin
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2-1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon allspice
- 1 tablespoon butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup sour cream or non-dairy sour cream
Place pumpkin and water in a medium saucepan, cover, and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, or until pumpkin is tender.
Remove pan from heat and mash pumpkin with a fork or potato masher. Add sugar, salt, cinnamon, allspice, and butter or margarine and stir. Return pan to stove over low heat. Add sour cream, stirring until mixture is smooth.
Makes 4-6 servings as an accompaniment.