Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Taking on the Giant

    I've been spending a fair bit of time thinking about foods that are under-used, ignored, or simply have fallen out of favour. An excellent example of this is Fat : an appreciation of a misunderstood ingredient with recipes by Jennifer McLagan, a book that attempts to single-handedly restore one of the most irrationally hated substances in cooking to its rightful place. Another is Bones: recipes, history and lore, coincidentally also by Jennifer McLagan.
    Bones, fat, and offal interest me because historically we've eaten all of them, yet currently we eat almost none of them. There are many vegetables that have suffered the same fate; like the pumpkin. Between mid-October and New Years, we eat a few pumpkin pies (usually commercially made, or made with commercial filling), but the majority of pumpkins are cut into jack o'lanterns and discarded a day or two later.
    So I ended up with a massive pumpkin back in early November. Maybe no Atlantic Giant, but it was a good 18 kilos or so. When reading Annie Hill's  book Voyaging on a Small Income, I learned that squash can be stored for extended periods with not much more than a quick wipe-down with a 5% bleach solution. The bleach impairs the growth of fungus and other microorganisms that degrade the shell of a squash, and once that's accomplished, squash slowly desiccate, but will last a long time without spoiling.
    A few weeks after rescuing this pumpkin, I noticed a little bit of white mold starting to grow on some of the rind scars, so I wiped it down and let it sit on a counter in the kitchen for the last eight weeks or so while I figured out what to do with it. It didn't really matter what I cooked it into, this was a big squash and was going to require a lot of preservation after that first cut. Yesterday I decided to get on with the job and picked up the pumpkin for the first time in months.
    And it was a good thing I did; I hadn't managed to stop all spoilage on the squash. Around the stem, the pumpkin rind had begun to soften and rot, but the pumpkin itself was in remarkably good shape.

The flesh was about 50-75mm thick and not very dry, despite having sat in a centrally heated house for months.

I dug out the seeds and put them aside--they're about as long and wide as my thumb from the end back to the first knuckle. Say, 25mm long and 15mm wide. Pretty massive, really. Paula cleaned them off and they're now air-drying. There weren't anywhere near as many as I would have expected (they seem to have substituted size for quantity), but once they're dry, I'll package them up in envelopes of five. Anyone wanting to grow pumpkins this year, let me know and I'll send out seed until I run out.

    I found this recipe a little while back for Roast Pumpkin and Chestnut Soup:

Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Chestnuts and Walnuts

2 lb 11 oz pumpkin, skin on, seeds removed, and cut into quarters
½  c    plus 2 tbsp olive oil
4    shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp    Masala
~12     chestnuts, skinned and chopped (canned are fine)
~1 c    buttermilk
~1 c    vegetable stock
1 tsp     finely chopped fresh sage
1 c    shelled walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 375F. Place the pumpkin on a roasting tray, coat with most of the olive oil, and bake for at least an hour. Cool and scoop the soft pumpkin flesh, together with any cooking juices, into a small container, Discard the skin.

In a medium saucepan, heat the remaining oil and sauté the shallots until soft, about 2-3 minutes, over medium heat. Add the masala and simmer over low heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Add the chestnuts and sauté for another 3 minutes.

Add the pumpkin flesh to the saucepan and remove from heat, mixing well. Place the mixture in a food processor and purée until soft, adding some buttermilk and vegetable stock.

Place the soup back in the saucepan and add more buttermilk and stock to achieve the desired consistency. Simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Add the herbs, and serve the soup hot, sprinkled with the walnuts.

    I didn't bother weighing anything, I simply filled the roasting pan with massive chunks of orange and stuck it in the oven. Two hours later it was finally ready to use. Like I said, a very thick flesh on the pumpkin.
    I diced shallots and sautéd them in duck fat (if I'd realized we had butter in the house again, I'd have probably used that rather than the called-for olive oil), and added a large scoop of mild curry paste (masala just means "any mixture" and generally refers to your particular mix of spices for curry) and some vegetable stock (I confess to having used organic vegetable bouillon cubes, not having anything but duck stock in the fridge). I also roasted and added a red bell pepper to the mix, having learned how well roast pepper and squash go together in soup back when I was staying in Nelson.  There was more pumpkin purée than I had room for in the food processor, so I split it and added the mix of spices, shallots, and chestnuts to one half and then stirred them together. Turns out I was making a little over two litres of soup....

    I skipped the sage altogether. Didn't have it, didn't miss it. But I did have Paula pick up a litre of buttermilk for me, and that turns out to have been a wise decision. I don't cook with buttermilk, never have. But when I tasted the soup, I was astonished. The curry spice threatened to overwhelm the flavours of the soup, but were held in check by the acid of the buttermilk. It also served as a check on the heat of the curry paste, much like coconut milk does. Without the buttermilk, the soup would have been good. With it, it became great! 

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