The great pumpkin.

From J., 17 October 2010, It’s the great pumpkin … appetizer.

Q: Looking for a creative idea for a Halloween appetizer (vegetarian) for a party I’m doing next week. Much obliged!

A: Thanks for your question. Halloween, eh? I’m not sure how many people you have to serve, but I love the idea of a pumpkin dish to start. When I was a kid, we had two cookbooks – one from Better Homes & Gardens, and the other from Amy Vanderbilt – which, crazily enough, was illustrated by Andy WarhoI. I wanted to make a pumpkin pie from the innards of our Halloween pumpkin, and the glossy, four-color photo of pumpkin pie in the BH&G book seemed pretty promising. Let me tell you two things I know now that I wish I’d known then. One, Halloween jack o’ lantern pumpkin isn’t a great pie pumpkin. I mean, it’s edible, but it tastes not so good and it’s really stringy. Two, after trying to use up ten pounds of jack o’ lantern by making pie, you kind of lose your taste for pie.

Pumpkin is the generic name for several varieties of large, orange-fleshed fall squash. They’re all members of the Curcubitaceae, or melon/gourd family, which includes butternut and Hubbard squash, zucchini and pattypan squash, cucumber, watermelon, cantaloupe, and galia melon, bitter melon and winter melon. Traditional Halloween pumpkins are C. pepo, less sweet than pie pumpkin and, in my opinion, with a faintly cucumbery taste. Canning pumpkin is almost exclusively C. moschata, a tan-skinned (and sometimes quite large) type that yields a sweet, dry, dark orange flesh. Looking for the taste of classic pumpkin pie? That’s your pumpkin. The other principal group of eating pumpkins – the so-called “sugar” or “cheese” varieties – tend to be C. maxima, which can vary widely in size and form a brilliant display of white, tan, orange, and blue-green squash. These pumpkins resulted from crossing Hubbard and kabocha squash varieties, and range from the small sugar pumpkins you find at the farmer’s market to giant competition-sized varieties reaching 75 pounds or more.

Clockwise from top: Hubbard, sweet dumpling, pumpkin, kabocha, sweet dumpling.

Had enough of the botany? Here are three simple recipes – pumpkin soup in little cups, small savory pumpkin pies, and steamed dumplings. Each is perfect if you’re working a crowd. Feel free to substitute any sweet, yellow/orange winter squash, like Hubbard, butternut, kabocha, or sweet dumpling.

Pumpkin soup, crispy sage

To prepare pumpkin for eating, I usually recommend splitting the squash into halves or smaller pieces, removing the stringy innards and seeds, and roasting – partly to enhance its sweetness, but more importantly to dry out and soften the flesh to make it easy to remove. Like many winter squash, pumpkins are hard-skinned, and it takes a good grip on a large, heavy knife to make the first cut. Salt lightly, drizzle the cut surfaces with olive oil (not too much), and roast in a 400F oven until tender enough to scoop. If you want to retain the pumpkin’s moisture content or don’t want to roast it for other reasons (such as to dice it, or to keep the sweetness down somewhat), cut off both ends of the pumpkin and rest it on its flat, cut surface on a cutting board. It should resemble a flattened-out globe. Following the shape of the squash, use your knife to cut the hard skin away from the orange flesh. At this point, you can cut the squash into chunks and remove the stringy innards and seeds.

In this recipe, you can roast the pumpkin this way if you don’t want to deal with cutting off all the skin. The soup may be a little sweeter than if you use raw pumpkin. If cooking for vegans, dispense entirely with the butter and just add a few drops of pumpkinseed oil to every cup of soup to finish.

1 leek, white only, washed well and julienned

1 medium onion, peeled and diced
about 1 lb pumpkin flesh (after peeling and seeding), cubed (1″), or prepared by roasting

1 quart chicken stock or substitute vegetable stock if cooking for vegetarians
4-5 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves

salt and celery salt (optional)

espelette or cayenne pepper
2 oz butter

handful sage leaves

1 tsp toasted pumpkinseed oil
1/2 lemon

Place a stock pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp olive oil. Sweat the onion and leek until tender. Do not allow to caramelize. Add the squash, cover, and cook until the squash begins to become tender, about 10 minutes. Add the herbs and the stock. Simmer until the squash is tender enough to fall apart when pressed with a fork.

Remove the thyme branches and bay leaves. Purée in a blender, in batches if necessary. To achieve a really smooth texture, process the purée through a fine sieve or tamis (you may skip this step). Return the purée to a sauce pot and bring to a simmer; reduce to the desired texture. The soup should be creamy and not too thick. Season with salt, cayenne, and espelette. Seasoning with a small amount of celery salt in lieu of salt reduces the sometimes too-sweet taste of the squash.

To serve: place a small sauté pan over medium high heat and add butter. Heat until foamy and beginning to turn light gold; add sage and fry until crisp. Drain leaves on paper towels and add pumpkinseed oil to brown butter. Add a squeeze of lemon and pinch of salt. Ladle soup into small cups. Add sage leaves and brown butter to soup.

Pumpkin soup, pumpkinseed brown butter, crispy sage

Savory pumpkin pie

These empanada-like small pies are nothing like the sweet dish that follows a holiday dinner. Pimentón and chipotle stand in for chorizo in this vegetarian dish. If cooking for vegans, you may use all vegetable shortening instead of butter and omit the egg in both the dough and the egg wash. Increase the water in the dough to 1/2 c. Your empanadas will be less crisp and more tender.

If you’re making this for meat enthusiasts, feel free to cube up about 1/2 lb of chorizo first, fry it, and use the fat to cook the other vegetables. Reduce the quantity of chipotle.

For the dough:

2 1/2 c flour
5 tbsp shortening or lard (shortening for vegetarians), cold, cubed
5 tbsp unsalted butter, cold, cubed
1 1/4 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten lightly
1 tbsp white vinegar (plain white, not wine)
1/3 c plus 1 tbsp ice water

1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 large russet potato, diced (1/4″)
about 3/4 lb pumpkin flesh (after peeling and seeding), diced (1/4″)
1 tsp each ground cumin, coriander
1/2 tsp dried Mexican oregano
1/2 tsp ground chipotle pepper
1/2 tsp Pimentón de la vera or another smoked paprika
1/2 c raisins
1/4 c diced green olives (pimiento stuffed)
olive oil
salt and black pepper

1 egg, beaten with 2 tbsp water

First, make the dough. In a bowl or a food processor, combine the flour and salt until totally incorporated. Add the cubed fats and cut with a pastry cutter or pulse the food processor just until the fat and dough combine in pea-sized bits. In a bowl, combine the egg, vinegar, and cold water. Add to the dough and stir with a fork or pulse until just incorporated. You will not have a smooth dough.

Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and gather to a pile or rough ball. Knead and turn once or twice until the mixture holds together. If you are skilled at pastry, use fraisage (pushing the mixture out with the heel of your hand, then folding it over itself and repeating) to achieve a flakier crust. Form into a square or rectangle and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate until ready to use (let it rest at least an hour).

Make the filling. Place a large sauté pan over medium high heat and, when hot, add some oil to the pan. Add the onion and sauté until golden. Add the spices, stirring until fragrant. Add the potato and squash cubes and cover the pan, cooking and stirring occasionally, until both are tender. Add the raisins and olives. Season well with salt and pepper.

400F oven.

Divide the dough into 24 portions (these are small pies). Form each into a ball and roll into a disk about 1/8″ thick. Do not overwork the dough. Spoon about 1 tbsp filling into the center of the dough, fold over, and crimp (if you are fancy, you can use other decorative edging). Brush with egg wash. Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes.

Pumpkin dumplings with lemongrass, green curry sauce

Pumpkin and other winter squashes are widely eaten – from Argentina to Italy to India to Thailand. These steamed dumplings are light and aromatic with Thai flavors – an excellent base for the mildly spicy, rich sauce.

Four is an unlucky number in several Asian countries (being a homophone of the word for death). So avoid serving four of these per guest. Odd numbers look better on the plate, anyway.

If cooking for vegans, eliminate the fish sauce in the filling (use more salt), and double the coconut milk in the sauce, omitting the butter. The sauce will taste different but will still be delicious.

1 small leek, white only, washed well and julienned

1 medium onion, peeled and diced
About 2 inches of ginger, peeled and minced to a paste
2 cloves garlic, minced to a paste
1 stalk of lemongrass, tender purplish-white heart only, minced
2 serrano peppers, seeded and stemmed, minced
1 tsp fish sauce
about 1 lb pumpkin flesh (after peeling and seeding), cubed (1″), or prepared by roasting
1 c chicken stock or substitute vegetable stock if cooking for vegetarians
1 c light coconut milk
salt and white pepper

About 50 round dumpling wrappers

1 tbsp green curry paste
1/3 c Riesling or another light, floral white wine (such as Grüner Veltliner or Viognier)
3 tbsp light coconut milk
4 ounces unsalted butter, divided into 6-8 chunks.

Place a stock pot over medium heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp olive oil. Sweat the onion and leek until tender. Do not allow to caramelize. Add the ginger, garlic, lemongrass, and serrano pepper; cook until fragrant. Add the fish sauce and cook until the smell dissipates. Add the squash, cover, and cook until the squash begins to become tender, about 10 minutes. Add the stock and coconut milk. Simmer until the squash is tender enough to fall apart when pressed with a fork.

Purée in a blender, in batches if necessary. To achieve a really smooth texture, process the purée through a fine sieve or tamis (you may skip this step, but since lemongrass can be fibrous, it is best). If the filling is thin, like a thick soup, return to the pot and simmer until about the consistency of Cream of Wheat. Season with salt and white pepper; allow to cool.

Set a pot of water to boil. Fill a small mug with water. Place about 1 1/2 tsp of filling in the center of a dumpling wrapper and moisten the edge. Fold over, seal well, and pleat. Repeat until you have used all the wrappers or all the filling (you probably will use all the wrappers first). Oil the base of a steamer and place the dumplings in the steamer (you may need to cook in batches if you don’t have stacking steamers). Cover and steam over boiling water until the skins are translucent and tender, about 6 minutes.

While the dumplings steam, prepare the sauce. Place the green curry paste and wine in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and reduce until the wine is nearly evaporated and a smooth green sauce coats the pan. Do not burn. Add the coconut milk and bring to a simmer; reduce by 2/3. Remove from heat and add the butter, swirling the pan to emulsify.

Serve 3-5 dumplings per person; spoon sauce on plates and place dumplings on top.

3 thoughts on “The great pumpkin.

  1. Pingback: Halloween. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Judy Gasik says:

    These sound fantastic! A slight glich though, and I should have mentioned earlier: we’re serving pumpkin ravioli with a sage butter sauce as an entree and I think this might be overload on pumpkin!

    You posted a dumpling, I think you did it for a party, with an edamame filling…It looked fantastic. What do you think about that instead? Good for a crowd? Holds up well for hours?

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