THOUGH A bumper crop of pumpkins will be carved in the name of grinning jack-o'-lanterns and holiday pies this year, few will go on to greater guises.
Enter the inventive cook who's learned a few stratagems from old European and South American hands, tricks that will turn this all-American vegetable into a cornucopia of treats.
Take, for instance, the dramatic Argentine dish, carbonara criolla, a hearty beef and vegetable stew which is baked in a pumpkin shell and brought to the table in its bright orange container. "It's really a sophisticated country dish," explained Martha Takacs, wife of the Argentine ambassador, who recently surprised dinner guests by giving this traditional dish a new twist. Instead of one large pumpkin used as a tureen, she served the savory stew stuffed in individual small pumpkins set in soup dishes.
Not only pumpkins but their seeds and blossoms have been used since pre-Columbian times by clever cooks south of the border. Mexican children delight in the wedges of calabaza cooked in a brown sugar syrup and topped with a little cream. The pumpkin seed has been ground and turned into a base for sauces, and the colorful blossoms have ended up in soup pot or as part of a filling for quesadillas.
Spanish explorers, intrigued by the large "melons" cultivated by the North and South American Indians, introduced pumpkins and other squash to the Old World. Even today, slices of pumpkin are tied up in bundles of fall greens and sold in European markets for soup-making. Both the Basque pumpkin soup and the pure de calabaza that follow are Spanish translations of this New World vegetable.
As might be expected, Yankee ingenuity prevails in this beyond-the-pumpkin-pie tale. Pumpkin joins spinach in the wok for a different sort of stir-fry.
Before heading out to the pumpkin patch, here are a few tips for choosing the best specimens for cooking purposes. As with all vegetables, look for those that are free of rot and blemishes, with good, bright color and a firm rind. However, do not be put off by "webbing" or a slight scarring that occurs on the surface of some pumpkins; this will not adversely affect the taste or the shelf life at all. In general, smaller varieties (those 10 pounds and under) such as the sugar or New England pie pumpkin have less waste, a thicker shell, a finer grain and a somewhat sweeter taste. Remember, too, that though large varieties like "big max" are excellent candidates for cooking, most conventional ovens are not big enough to accommodate a whole 40-pound monster; save these instead for making puree' to use in other dishes.
Pumpkins will keep well for two to three months after harvesting if stored in a dry, cool (45 to 60 degrees) spot where there is no danger of freezing. The most important thing to remember, says Bob Stewart, an urban agricultural agent with Prince George's County, is to protect the stem end of the pumpkin from puncture or damage. If this area is damaged, he warns, it could lead to rot.
When preparing fresh pumpkin, figure on about a half-pound serving per person. A five-pound pumpkin will yield about 4 1/2 cups of cooked, mashed pumpkin; a 9-inch pie requires anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 cups of pumpkin pure'e.
Pumpkin weighs in the middle range on the calorie scale -- higher than vitamin-rich tomatoes and lower than sweet potatoes. This fibrous vegetable offers a good source of vitamin A plus other nutrients such as potassium. A one-cup serving of raw pumpkin is 64 calories; an equal amount of the canned pure'e, which often contains other winter squash, is 81 calories. And although pumpkin seeds are high in fat, they are an alternative source of protein as well as being high is phosphorus, niacin and iron.
For those ready to experiment, here are a few treats to try from the pumpkin patch.
KAREN HARMATIUK'S PUMPKIN BEEF STEW (8 to 10 servings)
Taking the grand prize in the recent cooking contest sponsored by the Wine Institute was this hearty harvest stew. Inspired by the Argentine dish, carbonara criolla, the recipe substitutes pitted prunes for the more common peaches. In this dish, the fall pumpkin serves in a variety of roles -- as an ingredient, a cooking vessel and a brightly-colored tureen to bring to the table. 1 cup flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon pepper 2 pounds lean beef, cut into 1-inch cubes 6 tablespoons oil 1/2 cup brandy
1 cup chopped onion 1 cup chopped green pepper 3 minced garlic cloves
3 cups beef stock 1 cup dry red wine 3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 2 bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon oregano 1 1/2 pounds white potatoes, peeled and cubed 1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced thick 3 ears corn, cut into 1-inch thick rounds (or 1 cup frozen) 1 pound zucchini, sliced thick 16 dried pitted prunes 10-to 12-pound pumpkin, scrubbed 1/2 cup butter 1/4 cup brown sugar 1 tablespoon cinnamon
Combine flour, salt and pepper in a bowl. Dredge meat cubes and shake off excess. In a 4- or 5-quart pan, heat 4 tablespoons of oil and brown the cubes in small batches. Add brandy to pan, stirring briefly, then remove meat and juices to another bowl. Pour remaining oil into pan and add onion, green pepper and garlic. Cook, stirring, until soft and slightly browned. Pour in beef stock and wine and bring to boil, scraping up bits clinging to pan. Stir in beef and juices, tomatoes, bay leaves and oregano. Cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add white and sweet potatoes and cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Stir in corn and cook, covered, for another 15 minutes. (Corn is more easily cut into rounds using a cleaver or heavy kitchen knife.) Add zucchini and prunes and cook, covered, for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and keep stew covered so that it remains warm while you prepare the pumpkin.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice lid about 3 inches down from top of the pumpkin and with a spoon, scrape all the fiber and seeds from the inside of the pumpkin and its lid. Wash briefly under running water and dry the interior and exterior with paper towels. Melt the butter and brush over the interior and inside of lid. Sprinkle inside of shell with the brown sugar and cinnamon. Return lid to top of pumpkin and place in a well-greased roasting pan. Bake for 45 minutes, watching carefully the last minutes of baking. The pumpkin must be strong enough to hold the stew and the pulp should be somewhat firm when pierced with a fork. Pour the juices that have accumulated in the pumpkin into the stew and blend well. Spoon stew into the pumpkin shell, replace lid and bake an additional 15 minutes. (Extra stew can be warmed in a covered casserole.) Bring covered pumpkin to table and ladle stew into heated soup dishes, making sure that you scrape up some of the softened interior to serve with each portion of stew. Note: This dish can be prepared in advance. Both the stew and the pumpkin should be reheated separately before adding the stew to the pumpkin for the last 15 minutes of baking.
BASQUE PUMPKIN SOUP (6 to 8 servings)
A substantial soup with a subtle taste of pumpkin, this dish makes the best of fall vegetables. 1 cup dried white beans 2 large pinches of salt 1 1/2 pounds slab bacon 2 tablespoons bacon fat or lard 2 onions, finely minced
2 large leeks, well-cleaned and thinly sliced 4 large cloves garlic, finely minced 1 large carrot, peeled and cubed 2 stalks celery, finely cubed 1 large sprig parsley 1 teaspoon dried thyme 1 bay leaf
6 peppercorns 8 to 12 cups homemade chicken stock or use equal parts of canned chicken broth and water 1 1/2 pounds pumpkin, peeled and cubed 2 frankfurters or small garlic sausages, thinly sliced (optional)
Put the beans in a large flameproof casserole, along with enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Bring beans to a boil over high heat and cook for 1 minute, then remove from heat. Cover and let beans stand for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Add more water to the beans to cover again by 2 inches. Season with a good pinch of salt and set the covered casserole in the oven. Cook beans for 2 hours, or until very tender, then remove casserole from oven, drain the beans and set aside. (Beans can also be simmered in a saucepan on top of the range, following the same directions.)
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the bacon and cook for 3 minutes over high heat, then drain and cut into 1/2-inch slices. Saute' the bacon in a large, heavy flameproof casserole until barely crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Discard all but 2 tablespoons of fat from pan and add the onions, leeks and garlic. Cook until soft and lightly browned, then add the carrots, celery, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns and a good pinch of salt and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the stock and bacon and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the pumpkin, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 hours. Add the drained beans and cook for another 20 to 30 minutes, then taste the soup and correct the seasoning. Discard the parsley sprig and bay leaf. Add the optional hot dogs or sausages and heat through. Serve soup in a large tureen, with thinly sliced french bread saute'ed in olive oil.
Adapted from Perla Meyers' "The Peasant Kitchen" (Harper & Row, 1975).
PURE DE CALABAZA (Cold Pumpkin Soup) (6 to 8 servings)
Called "the soup of the aristocrats," this Spanish speciality makes a soothing start to a multi-course meal. It is served chilled, topped with a dollop of whipped cream and toasted almond slivers. 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons flour 3 cups clear chicken broth 1 1-pound, 4-ounce can cooked pumpkin or 2-pound pumpkin, cooked and mashed 1 cup light cream, scalded 2 tablespoons melted butter 2 egg yolks 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/4 cup dry sherry 1/2 pint whipping cream 2 tablespoons toasted almond slivers
In a 2-quart soup kettle, heat the butter and oil over low heat. Saute' onions until soft. Add the flour and when the mixture bubbles and turns golden, remove from heat. Add chicken broth slowly, whisking to prevent lumps. Return to heat and cook until it thickens. Add pumpkin and mix well. Bring soup to a slow boil, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
Combine the light cream and melted butter and stir into the soup. Blend well and cook 5 minutes longer (do not boil). In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks then stir a little of the hot soup into the eggs. Return the mixture to the soup pot. Simmer, stirring constantly, and add the salt, pepper and sherry. Cook another 10 minutes. In an electric blender, add small portions of the soup and swirl a few seconds (counting to 10 slowly), until the mixture has a velvety consistency. As it is blended, pour into a soup tureen. Cover tureen and chill thoroughly. Just before serving, whip the cream and fold in the toasted almonds. Serve in chilled soup dishes, topped with a generous tablespoon of the whipped cream.
From Clarita Garcia's "Clarita's Cocina" (Doubleday, 1969).
WOK SAUTE OF PUMPKIN AND SPINACH (6 servings)
A festive side dish that can be prepared in just a few minutes, this saute' combines tender green spinach leaves with crunchy matchsticks of yellow-orange pumpkin. 3 to 4 tablespoons butter 2 to 3 tablespoons light olive oil or peanut oil 2 pounds fresh spinach, washed and tough stems removed 1 to 1 1/4 pounds pumpkin, peeled and cut into julienne strips 2 inches long and 1/8-inch thick 1 medium onion, sliced Salt, freshly ground pepper and freshly ground nutmeg to taste
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a wok or large frying pan. When butter is melted, add spinach and toss until it is wilted and just cooked through. Remove to a side dish. Add remaining butter and oil to pan and heat. Toss in the pumpkin and onion and stir, cooking for several minutes until just tender. Add spinach, tossing and turning until heated through. Taste and add seasonings. Serve immediately in warmed bowl.
Adapted from Julia Child's "Julia Child & Company" (Knopf, 1978).