If you're cooking for vegetarians at Thanksgiving, it's hard to resist the stuffed-pumpkin idea. The vegetarians have their main dish, everyone else has another side, and all is right with the world.
As tempting as it is to stuff a single large pumpkin, though, the degree of difficulty rises along with the poundage. A jack-o-lantern-size specimen can require as much oven space as a turkey, and if its flesh gets too tender to hold the filling, well, you've got a disaster on your hands — or table.
It's easier than ever to find small sugar or pie pumpkins and other winter squash, and they're just the ticket for this preparation. Choose ones that are about two pounds or so, and each one can serve two guests, if not more. You can even use a variety of colors, for a striking presentation.
Next question: What to stuff it with?
I was more than intrigued when I spotted a recipe for Biryani Stuffed Pumpkins in a new cookbook, "The Vegetable: Recipes That Celebrate Nature" by Caroline Griffiths and Vicki Valsamis (Smith Street Books). The idea of using small pumpkins as vessels to cook one of my favorite Indian dishes seemed downright inspired.
The recipe is worth making just for the chance to fill your kitchen with the swoon-inducing aromas produced by the heady spices and other aromatics, which you combine with pistachios and dried cherries, then roast inside the pumpkin cavities. But it gets even better. You scrape out that mixture, along with a good amount of pumpkin flesh, stir in yogurt and then layer it all back into the pumpkins with basmati rice. Sprinkle the top layer with saffron-infused water, bake again, and just try not to dig in before these beauties even make it onto a platter.
It's mostly hands-off work, but if you prefer you can divide the job, roasting the pumpkins the first time a day (or days) before the Thanksgiving crunch. When you stuff and finish them closer to serving time, that showstopping aroma will return, I promise.
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This side or main dish combines pumpkins or other winter squash with the heady flavors of ginger-spiced pistachios, plus yogurt and basmati rice. Small kabocha squash gave us the best results in testing, but you can use other varieties (or even a combination) for visual appeal. (Just know that using one variety will result in more consistent cooking, while using several will require more checking because their cooking times will probably vary.)
MAKE AHEAD: The ginger-spiced pistachios can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. The pumpkins can be initially baked with the spiced pistachios and refrigerated for up to 3 days. In both cases, bring to room temperature before proceeding.
Adapted from "The Vegetable: Recipes That Celebrate Nature," by Caroline Griffiths and Vicki Valsamis (Smith Street Books, 2017).
For the ginger-spiced pistachios
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
½ cup peeled, finely chopped fresh ginger root
1 green chile (such as jalapeño or serrano pepper), stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
½ cup pistachios, coarsely chopped
½ cup dried cherries or cranberries, coarsely chopped
2 bay leaves
3 small cinnamon sticks
¾ teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 teaspoons salt
For the pumpkins
Four 2¼ -pound pumpkins or other round winter squash of your choice (preferably kabocha squash; see headnote)
Large pinch saffron threads
¼ cup warm water
¾ cup whole-milk Greek yogurt (may substitute low-fat or nonfat)
2¼ cups uncooked white basmati rice
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the ginger-spiced pistachios: Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger; cook until very fragrant and soft, 2 minutes. Stir in the green chile, pistachios, cherries, bay leaves, cinnamon, chili powder, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, garam masala and salt; turn off the heat.
For the pumpkins: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Use a large, sharp knife to cut off the tops of the pumpkins; hang on to them, because they will serve as lids. Scrape out and discard the seeds (or reserve them for another use), then arrange the pumpkins, cut sides up, on a large baking sheet. Spoon the spiced pistachio mixture into the pumpkins. Put the lids back on and roast until a skewer easily pierces the flesh, about 1 hour. Let cool slightly.
While the pumpkins are roasting, stir together the saffron and water in a small bowl, to steep.
Scoop the spiced pistachio filling and most of the pumpkin flesh (leaving at least ½ inch wall of flesh around the edges) out into a saucepan. Stir in the yogurt.
Fill a medium saucepan three-quarters full of water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Stir in the rice and cook for 5 minutes, then drain in a colander. The rice will not be cooked through.
Divide about one-third of the pistachio-pumpkin filling among the pumpkins, followed by one-third of the rice. Repeat twice more, layering the filling and the rice in each pumpkin until full, finishing with a layer of rice. Top the rice with knobs of the butter and drizzle with the saffron water.
Place the lids back on the pumpkins; roast until the rice is tender and the filling is hot and very fragrant, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve warm or at room temperature. (Note that the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks will be in the filling and can be picked out as it is served, if you like.)
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