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Considering that pumpkins originated in the New World, I am impressed by how successfully this peripatetic squash has been matched with pasta, rice and grains around the globe.
Recently I was vividly reminded of pumpkin's role in Italian cuisine. I enjoyed a pumpkin lasagna at Fantasy of Flavors, an event in Los Angeles showcasing creations of some of the city's top chefs, and benefitting the Careers through Culinary Arts Program, which promotes culinary employment opportunities for youth.
The lasagna, a specialty of La Terza restaurant, was delicate and delicious thin pasta sheets layered with creamy, subtly seasoned pumpkin. Chef Jeanluca Sarti told me the ingredients are just butternut squash (dalorit) - which resembles sweet pumpkin - lasagna noodles, a little bechamel sauce (basic cream sauce), Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. The dish was splendid in its simplicity.
Italians match pumpkin with pasta in several ways. Often they turn it into a filling for stuffed pastas like ravioli. One traditional filling, which is quite sweet, calls for mixing baked pumpkin with crushed amaretti cookies and diced candied fruit. Mary Ann Esposito, author of Ciao Italia - Bringing Italy Home, fills tortelloni with baked pumpkin and grated apple, then serves it with meat sauce. Chef Mario Batali, who wrote The Babbo Cookbook, opts for a savory stuffing for his round ravioli, roasting pumpkin or sweet squash with olive oil, then blending it with Parmesan, nutmeg and balsamic vinegar. The sauce is melted butter with fresh sage leaves, and for a subtle hint of sweetness, there's a garnish of a grated amaretti cookie. Batali also cooks orzo (rice- or barley-shaped pasta) with pumpkin, accenting the dish with olive oil, honey and vinegar.
When I was in Italy, I liked the way cooks used pumpkin in risotto flavored with white wine, Parmesan and butter. In Turkey, I relished pumpkin simmered with rice, a specialty that graces Armenian and Kurdish tables as well.
Russians pair pumpkin not only with rice, but with other grains, notably semolina and millet. Anne Volokh, author of The Art of Russian Cuisine, makes a homey pumpkin porridge, cooking the vegetable with semolina, milk and sugar. Served with sugar or honey, she recommends it for breakfast, lunch or supper.
H. Witwicka and S. Soskine, authors of La cuisine russe classique, make a similar dish called pumpkin kasha from millet cooked with milk, pumpkin and sugar, then pureed and enriched with butter. "It's not a sweet dish," they explained, "but the sugar softens and enriches the taste of the pumpkin." Anya Van Bremzen and John Welchman, authors of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook, give a richer version, sauteing the pumpkin with butter, then cooking it with toasted millet, milk and honey. Van Bremzen remembers eating this dish at her kindergarten breakfasts. It's true comfort food.
For elegant meals, they note that another regional favorite is basmati rice pilaf with pumpkin crust, made of saffron rice layered with roasted chestnuts, cooked dried fruit and stewed lamb. This elaborate dish most likely comes from Azerbaijan, which they include in their book, and resembles Persian pilafs.
The most unusual pumpkin and rice creation I've had came from a Korean supermarket - pumpkin rice cakes made of slightly sweetened ground rice layered with thin slices of pumpkin, red beans and chickpeas. I couldn't figure out if it was meant to be a sweet treat or a savory snack, but I realized it didn't matter. It was something in between and nicely illustrated the versatility of pumpkin in the kitchen.
PASTA WITH PUMPKIN AND RAISINS
This colorful dish seasoned with cinnamon, sugar, lemon and dried mint is a good partner for roasted chicken, kebabs, lamb chops or steak. For meatless meals, you can replace the oil with butter.
Use either the large pumpkin that is sold by the piece or the bell-shaped butternut squash. Disc-shaped pasta called orecchiette ("little ears") is tasty and attractive with the pumpkin, but orzo or any other shape works fine as long as it is small so it's easy to mix with the pumpkin.
If your market carries dried cranberries (usually imported from the US), they make a colorful alternative to the raisins.
700 to 900 gr. butternut squash or pumpkin, peeled, seeds removed
2 to 3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1â„2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1â„2 tsp. ground ginger (optional)
salt and freshly ground pepper
3â„4 cup vegetable broth or water
3 to 4 Tbsp. raisins
2 to 6 tsp. sugar, or to taste
1 to 3 tsp. lemon juice (optional)
225 to 350 gr. orecchiette or medium pasta shells
1 to 2 tsp. dried mint (optional)
Cut squash in 2-cm. dice. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large saucepan or stew pan, add onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes or until beginning to turn golden. Add squash, cinnamon, ginger, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat, occasionally stirring gently, for 25 minutes or until squash is barely tender, adding a few tablespoons water if necessary so juices do not burn. Add raisins, 2 teaspoons sugar and 1 teaspoon lemon juice and cook for 5 minutes or until squash is just tender.
Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes for orecchiette or 5 to 8 minutes for shells or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain, reserving 1â„2 cup pasta cooking liquid. Add pasta and mint to pan of squash and toss over low heat for 1 to 2 minutes to blend flavors, adding a few tablespoons pasta liquid if mixture is too dry. Season to taste with salt and pepper and add more sugar, lemon juice or oil if you like. Serve hot.
Makes 4 or 5 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.