Monday, 31 October 2011

The Great Pumpkin

If you live, or have ever lived, in the United States, you'll probably have seen It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the Peanuts Halloween special, which features Linus waiting all night in a pumpkin patch for the fictitious Great Pumpkin (a kind Halloween version of Santa Claus) to appear.

Part of the humour is that the precocious Linus believes the Great Pumpkin will only rise from a "sincere" pumpkin patch. "Not a trace of hypocrisy as far as the eye can see", he tells Sally.

Well, what I wouldn't give for a sincere pumpkin patch now. Halloween has come and gone, so pumpkins will soon be scarce here in the UK. They only really setup them for jack o'lanterns anyway.

Which is an improvement in and of itself. My wife had to carve turnips when she was a kid.

The problem with the Halloween-orientated pumpkin market is that it only gives you about a month to cook all your pumpkin recipes. Do far I've done two.

On Friday night I chopped our pumpkin into wedges, measured out 200 grammes, and diced them for pumpkin risotto (Tom Kitchin recipe).

I wasn't nervous about this. Alison and I have made risotto millions of times. It's one of our favorite dishes, especially in cold weather. Our usual additions are prawn or (in Spring) asparagus.

However, I wasn't quite happy with the result. The first thing was the pumpkin itself. The recipe calls for sweating it in a pan, rather than roasting it. The texture gets nice and soft that way, but unroasted pumpkin is always a little on the bland side.

There was no garlic in the recipe either, only shallots. Obviously the flavouring of the dish was meant to be "subtle", but it's a fine line between subtle and bland if you're not a michelin-starred chef.

When tasting for seasoning, I kept finding it under-seasoned, even though I used a stock cube for the liquid. So I kept adding salt. But of course the final ingredient is 100 grammes of Parmesan cheese, to give it that unctuous texture, and Parmesan is quite salty too, so it ended up over-seasoned after all. (When we make risotto, we use creme fraiche, with just a handful of Parmesan for flavour.)

The recipe also called for the rice to be al dente, and mine was not, so I probably over-cooked it slightly as well, but Alison didn't mind, as she prefers risotto to have a softer, creamier texture.

There's a photo of the finished product included in this post. It's garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. That's an art I have yet to master, but I think the problem is I don't watch them closely enough. They seem to blacken very quickly.

Anyway, my second pumpkin experiment was pumpkin gnocchi. I have never made gnocchi in my life. Oddly enough, I've never been inspired to make my own traditional potato gnocchi, and I'm still not. It's quite a faff, and you can buy decent gnocchi from anywhere. Similarly, I'm in no hurry to make my own spaghetti, linguini, etc.

But pumpkin gnocchi? I don't know where to buy that apart from at The Kitchin.

I decided to make a half recipe and freeze it to use on Thursday. The good news is that the pumpkin was roasted, so it has more flavour. The bad news is that I forgot to halve the eggs when I halved everything else, shop at first the dough was much too wet (probably didn't help that I didn't really know what gnocchi dough should look and feel like). I ended up having to add the original, unhalved amount of flour to get the consistency right, so I've probably ended up with gnocchi that only slightly tastes of pumpkin. At least it's orange.

We used the rest of our roast pumpkin for a pumpkin, goat's cheese, and cranberry salad (you can use butternut squash if pumpkin is unavailable). Apart from the pie later this month, that's it for pumpkin season.

So why am I so obsessed with pumpkin? Because it's one of those ingredients we take for granted, but comes from Mexico. The earliest evidence of pumpkin cultivation comes from prehistoric Mexico, though it seems it was the seeds they were primarily interested in.

When the Spanish first arrived in Mexico, they wrote about a green sauce made of pumpkin seeds called pipián, an Aztec speciality. This sauce is still called pipián, and I made version of it earlier this year (with chicken) as filling for tamales, using a recipe from Two Cooks and a Suitcase. It's delicious, but very rich, even with the tomatillos to cut through it. Pumpkin, along with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chilies, chocolate, and vanilla, is one of the many ingredients the whole world takes for granted, but wouldn't be available without Central and South America, and the vast Empire that once ruled it. Oddly enough, another quintessential Mexican ingredient, cilantro (coriander) was introduced by the Spanish. Anyway, now I've got to source a can of cooked pumpkin for Thanksgiving, if the fucking Canadians haven't nicked it all.