Pumpkins. For me it is officially the end of summer when they first start appearing in the shops and the kids have gone back to school. It is the thing that the supermarkets can sort of fudge to hide getting the Christmas goods in. With all the Halloween festive additions of chocolates and sweeties (and it seems that since Kraft took over Cadbury they have gone for this market quite significantly), they stand out like a sore thumb. Big and cumbersome, they look battered and bruised and never tempting to eat, disappearing as soon as Halloween is over.
David Bowman is the UK’s biggest seller of pumpkins, shifting around 2 million of the things – they even sponsor a pumpkin festival (sadly gone for this year) in Spalding, Lincolnshire, which is the defacto pumpkin capital of the UK – and suggests that 99% of all pumpkins are used for carving. It surprises me that so few people eat it; although that’s probably not true given the poor bland watery quality of most of them that you can buy. But I still remember the first time I ate it, tortelli de zucca.
The Italian town of Mantova, Lombardy – or Mantua, as the natives call it – and its ‘tortelli di zucca have a sacral quality’ – is the home of this venerable dish. It has been around since the 1500’s apparently, and the locals are fiercely proud of its origins. It is a traditional Christmas Eve dish, and one of the few non-meat dishes Italians will eat. Indeed, the proprietor who sold it to me the first time said it is the only vegetarian dish he would eat. It didn’t take long for me to be completely smitten. Its flavours are so mellow and warming, with a such a gentle sweetness that makes the harsh autumnal blues float away. I am not sure whether it is the amaretti biscuits or the apple mustard that really gives it its distinctive flavour, but it completely changed my perception of those orange things that I had only ever really used for Jack O’Lanterns.
I am now completely obsessed. If there is ever anything on the menu that pumpkin is in, I will order it. Even when it is bad, I love it. I once made a pumpkin risotto without steaming it, and it was really hard and chewy and not sweet at all, but that didn’t stop me. You increasingly see it in thai fusion cooking as the combination of sweet, sour, hot and spicy work well with it. I really enjoy simply roasting it in sage and olive and oil and eating in with some salad greens and goats cheese. There is no question that it makes a fantastic soup (I really enjoy it with some red pepper), and or course, risotto’s are an easy thing way to enjoy it (as long as you don’t make my mistake). I have not as yet tried to make it from scratch but pumpkin gnocchi, either in a sage butter or a plain tomato sauce, is also very tasty. Even just roast it and sticking it on a margarita pizza.
There are over 50 varieties of pumpkins, and the more flavourful are the smaller and perhaps, un-orange skin ones. Marina di Chioggia, the main varietal from Italy is in fact green, are the one I was recommended to cook with. I really enjoy cooking with munchkins too, but it is best not to use the larger varieties for savoury dishes, and if you want to make pie, use the New England versions as they are naturally sweeter.
Pumpkin Pie. It was never something that appealed to me, and something that I used to dismiss as a silly American thing. Since meeting my wife (who hails from the Sunshine State), I now celebrate Thanksgiving with her and made it my mission to make pie every year. I used to just stick with the Libby’s version, because it is such a fail safe – and that’s what you do right?, but one year someone brought their own, homemade version. Then I discovered an ice cream shop in NYC that made Pumpkin Pie ice cream. I had to do both. So last year for Thanksgiving I made my own pie and, even though Scotland has got incredibly cold recently, I wanted to finally make ice cream. Here is a version of a pie recipe that I have altered to work as an ice cream.
Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream
100g caster sugar
450 g (1 lb) pumpkin flesh, cut into 2.5 cm (1 in) chunks
2 large eggs plus 1 yolk
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground allspice
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground ginger
275 ml (10 fl.oz) double cream
Shortbread biscuits (as many as you want – 5/6 should be sufficient)
Steam the pumpkin, then put it in a sieve and press lightly to extract any excess water. Then lightly whisk the eggs and the extra yolk together in a large bowl. Place the sugar, spices and cream in a pan, bring them to simmering point, stirring with a whisk regularly. Then pour this mixture over the eggs and whisk it again briefly. Return the mixture into the saucepan containing the rest of the cream and continue cooking gently for 3-4 minutes, or until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and now add the pumpkin pureé whisking everything thoroughly until combined. Pour the mixture into an ice cream machine and churn for 2 hours. Crumble shortbread into the mixture as it churns or add when serving as desired.
Serve with cognac.