Peter isn’t the only pumpkin eater around, but he must have had to eat quite a lot of very large ones in order to keep a wife in the shell. Why she would put up with such a home, I cannot answer. Nonetheless, Peters worldwide are in luck. Antarctica is the only continent that cannot grow pumpkins. They are thought to have originated in Central America as a member of the Cucurbitaceae family where they left evidential seeds dating to approximately 7,000 BC. The English and the Spaniards brought it back to Europe, but the name is derived from the Greek pepon for large melon. The French picked it up as pomou and passed it to the British who heard it as pumpion. That name traveled with colonists back to the Western Hemisphere where it trumped all linguistic odds and became pumpkin.
Though they are most commonly known in the orange form, pumpkins actually come in dark green, pale green, white, red and grey. The traditional American pumpkin is the Connecticut Field variety. There is a rumor that a recently wed and imaginative couple decorated their reception hall in white pumpkins. What kind of vehicle did they drive away in? There is a pumpkin variety that is called Cinderella for its wider but somewhat flatter shape, all the better to turn into carriages. A few might be larger than some smaller cars. The 2009 world record for the largest pumpkin is a 1,725 pound giant pumpkin from Ohio. Records are made to be broken and Wisconsin has a 1,820.5 pound entry for 2010.
Maybe the pumpkin’s rotund and jolly appearance is responsible for the wide range of fun, festivals and contests they inspire. There are annual Pumpkin Queens all over the U.S.. The northeast harbors a number of competitions for amassing the largest number of jack o’ lanterns. As far as I could determine, Boston holds that particular record, set in 2006 with 30,128 jack o’ lanterns on display. There is a pumpkin festival that has been held in Circleville, Ohio every year since 1903 with the wartime exception of three years. Pumpkins are the stuff of children’s imagination, coaches, homes and great goblin faces.
Have you ever wondered where Jack O’ Lanterns come from? Well it seems there was once an extremely sly, Irish blacksmith named Jack. Drinking with the devil, he conned his companion into turning himself into a silver coin to pay for the drinks. The devil complied and Jack snatched the coin up and into a pocket with a silver cross that prevented the devil from returning to his usual state. Before Jack would remove the cross, he made the devil swear that he would never take Jack into hell. This was only one of the many tricks that Jack played on Old Nick and when Jack died, his soul was the only one that the devil didn’t want. Jack had been such a bad lot for so long he didn’t qualify for heaven either, so he was condemned to wander the black nights of earth eternally. It was so dark that he couldn’t even see the turnip he was eating and he begged the devil for a light. The devil tossed him one of the embers of hell. Jack placed it in his half eaten turnip. At some point he replaced the turnip with a pumpkin and the ember still flickers in it hauntingly, here and there in the darkness as Jack wanders.
As for its culinary properties, the first colonists lopped off the top of the pumpkin; scooped out the stringy insides and seeds; then filled it with milk, honey and spices. They set the filled pumpkin in the coals of their fireplace to bake. That must be the great, great grandmother of all pumpkin pies. The Japanese use pumpkin to make tempura; the Italians stuff ravioli with it; the Thai make individual servings of pumpkin custard in very small pumpkins; and in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. pumpkin flowers are battered and fried. Pumpkin seeds are roasted and spiced to be eaten as snacks. Seeds are also pressed for their oil and an extract of it is used medicinally. The nutrients that pumpkin provides include lutein, alpha and beta carotene and vitamins A and C. Current research indicates that pumpkin can reduce the risks of developing cancer and help protect against heart disease.
Serves: 4 to 5
1 -4 to 5 pound sugar pumpkin
1 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup minced shallots
2 cups cooked wild rice
6 scallions, sliced diagonally
¾ cup mixed dried fruit: pears, cranberries, papaya, mango and apple
6 large shitake mushrooms, sliced thinly
1 teaspoon fresh, shredded sage
¼ cup pine nuts
1. Preheat oven to 350o
2. Cut the top from the pumpkin. Remove all seeds and strings.
3. Prick cavity with a fork and rub with 1 teaspoon of salt, the nutmeg and the mustard. Let the pumpkin sit for at least 15 minutes.
4. Add ¼ cup of chicken broth.
5. Put pumpkin in a shallow baking dish containing ½ inch of water. Place baking pan in oven and bake pumpkin for about an hour, more if a larger pumpkin is used.
6. As the chicken broth is absorbed, replace it with another ¼ cup. You may not use all of the broth.
7. Replace top of pumpkin during the last ½ hour of cooking.
8. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet and sauté shallots and mushrooms lightly.
9. Stir in the wild rice, remaining salt, the scallions, dried fruit and pine nuts.
10. Stuff the baked pumpkin with the rice mixture, replace the pumpkin top and serve.
NOTE: When serving, scoop out pumpkin flesh with stuffing.
VARIATION: The original of this recipe included a pound of ground venison and half of the rice above. It is very good that way, but I then use it as a main dish rather than a side dish.
FETTUCCINI ALLA ZUCCA
1 -3 lb. pumpkin, string and seeds removed, peeled, cut into ½ inch thin slices
4 tablespoons butter
1 leek, minced
1 stalk celery, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons freshly ground nutmeg*
½ cup plain yogurt
1 scant cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 lb. fettuccini
1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan and add the leeks and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, for three to five minutes.
3. Add the pumpkin slices to the mixture and stir.
4. Add a little stock, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, adding stock as necessary to keep it moist.
5. Add salt, fresh pepper and nutmeg according to taste.
6. Remembering that it is a hot mixture, transfer it to a food processor or blender in batches and puree.
7. Return the puree to the pan and keep warm.
8. Cook the pasta until it is still firm to the bite. Drain it well and place it in a heated bowl.
9. Add the yogurt and the remaining butter to the pumpkin mixture over low heat, stirring quickly for a minute or two. Remove it from the heat.
10. Add the Parmesan cheese to the pasta and toss it well.
11. Add the pumpkin sauce to the pasta and serve immediately.
*Don’t cheat your taste buds with commercially ground nutmeg. This is, after all, the nutmeg state, though that is an entirely different story.
PS If you would like to see a web site which covers cooking conversions for metric versus US customary measures see http://www.sciencemadesimple.com/conversions.html