Friday, October 20, 2006

Working with Pumpkins

I love pumpkin. A lot of people don't really think about it, until they get to the pumpkin pie for dessert on Thanksgiving. And a lot of people just plain hate it. Me, I love it. For me, there's never a bad time of year to eat pumpkin pie, or anything else made from pumpkin for that matter. It's such a versatile ingredient. In addition to the standard pumpkin roll, bread and of course pie, I've also seen pumpkin soup, tempura, flan, cheesecake, muffins, pancakes and even lasagna. So I decided that before it goes out of season, I'd better get down to cooking some pumpkin.

Before we get started, let's talk about the three main types of pumpkin that you're likely to see at the store. You've got the big ones, the really little ones and the inbetween ones.

You never see the big ones used for anything but Jack-o-lanterns. That's probably at least partly because the smaller a pumpkin is (or so I've heard), the sweeter and more flavorful it is. Yes, that means the smaller ones are the sweetest. But alas, they are pretty small. That leaves us with the inbetween ones, called pie pumpkins, or sugar pumpkins.

I started my adventure with a pretty average-size sugar pumpkin. First step: whack off the top! While you're at it, go ahead and whack off the bottom too. Be careful! Pumpkin is softer than some other squash, but that doesn't mean it's like butter. I just laid mine out on its side the cutting board, and sliced off the ends with a sharp kitchen knife. This was not a scene from Psycho, and I didn't look like some crazed butcher hacking away with a cleaver. Just go easy, making a nice, clean, safe cut with a sharp kitchen knife.

Now, with both the ends removed, go ahead and scoop out the guts into a bowl. Don't throw them away! Roasted pumpkin seeds are good snackin'! We'll get to that in a moment. We still have a lot of them to scoop out. You can use a good spoon or even an ice cream scoop to get that squash clean. Make sure you get as much of that fibrous gunk out as possible. I'm sure it's good for something, but you don't really want it where we're going. I even went so far as to cut my pumpkin in half to make sure I got it all. Since there's a nice stable base on both the top and bottom now, it's a pretty safe cut. Now you need to get that stuff on the outside off. I'm sure there's lots of chefs that will tell you lots of ways to do it, but I just used a vegetable peeler. It's actually pretty soft.

Now, there's a couple of things you can do here. I've seen Emeril cut these into fingers, dip them into tempura batter and fry them. Personally, I like dicing them up and using them for other things. The problem is, they're still kind of hard. My pumpkin happened to be pretty ripe, and therefore softer than usual, but it still needed a little more softening. My favorite solution: steam!

Everyone has a steamer basket hanging around in their kitchen. Well, except for my brother. He apparently doesn't have one. Those of you who don't, head down to your local supermarket, pick up some cheap aluminum pie tins, poke a few holes in one of them, and pow! You have a steamer basket. Just make a snake out of aluminum foil, coil it on the bottom of a pot, and lay your perforated pie tin on top. Well, go ahead and add some water to the pot first, just about an inch or so. Then put your pie tin or steamer basket on top. If there's water touching the bottom part of the basket, there's too much.

Now, once you've sliced or diced up all your pumpkin and brought the water to a boil, go ahead and dump it all in there. Or maybe just half of it. To be honest, even a sugar pumpkin has a lot of meat. If you have too much in there, then the pieces on the bottom will overcook while the stuff on the top stays hard. I went with two different installments, just to be safe. Cover and cook until fork tender. For those not in the know, that means that when you stick a fork into it, the food yields to gentle pressure, but isn't mushy. In my case, that only took about five minutes. Be careful when removing the lid! I'm sporting a nice little steam burn this morning to remind me of my carelessness last night.

Now that the pumpkin is fork tender, what do you do with it? Well, it depends on whether you're planning on using it now or saving it for later. I had plans to use half of mine that evening, and save half for the next evening. So when my first batch came out, I dunked it in an ice water bath to stop the cooking. Then I moved it to a plastic container and dropped it off in the fridge. But the second batch, that one I had immediate plans for.

I heated a skillet to medium-high, added a wee bit of peanut oil and my half of a sugar pumpkin, diced, along with about a quarter teaspoon of salt. I love pumpkin, but it does tend to be pretty bland without any seasoning. I sauteed for a couple of minutes until I got some nice color, and then added half a cup of diced red bell pepper, and a quarter cup of diced jalapeno. I continued to saute, making sure I had a good bit of color on everything, but in particular, the pumpkin. That's when I added half a cup of chicken broth, one 6.5 ounce can of coconut milk and two teaspoons of curry powder. I brought this to a simmer and let it cook uncovered, stirring occassionally, until the liquid had reduced most of the way.

Now, while all of this had been going on, I decided that I wasn't about to have curry without some kind of rice to put it on. Inspired by my most recent visit to Bombay House, I heated a pan to medium, with a little peanut oil in it. I added a cup of white rice (yeah, I know they use Jasmine rice, but I'm out) and a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds. I sauteed it all until it was nice and toasty, added my cup of chicken broth, brought to a boil, covered it, and let it sit on low heat for twenty minutes. Then I pulled it off the heat and let it sit for another ten minutes before uncovering it. I laid out the rice on a plate, and dished out some pumpkin curry next to it. The resulting dish was... well, let's just say we were lucky to have any leftovers. It was really good.

What about the pumpkin seeds? Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about them. First, you need to separate the seeds from the pulp as best you can. This isn't an easy prospect. I got the big pieces out, and then I got a brilliant idea! I took the bowl with the seeds and remaining pulp, and filled it halfway with water. As I swished the water around with my fingers, I found that the seeds tended to float to the top, while the pulp tended to sink to the bottom.

This made it relatively easy to get the seeds out. I pulled them out, dumped them onto a sheet pan, and tossed them into a 350F oven. I would occassionally pull it out and give the seeds a stir. Roasting them took about 20 minutes, give or take. At one point, I gave them a spritz of water and sprinkled them with cinnamon. I figured the water would help make the spice stick to the seeds, and I was right. When they were nice and dry and cinnamony, I pulled them out and let them cool on the sheet pan before moving them into a little serving bowl.

The seeds were good. The curry was good. And I still have pumpkin left over to play with tonight! Truly, this whole pumpkin thing works out really well for me, every time.

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