Pumpkin with Mediterranean panache

It’s the flavorings that make Moroccan pumpkin soups taste different from French ones.

Ruth Barnes's beef tagine with butternut squash. (photo credit: SHARING MOROCCO BY RUTH BARNES)
Ruth Barnes's beef tagine with butternut squash.
(photo credit: SHARING MOROCCO BY RUTH BARNES)
Until we lived in France, we didn’t use pumpkin much, apart from simmering chunks of it in chicken soup from time to time.
In Paris we learned to prepare a delicate pumpkin soup called crème d’or, or golden cream, made by simmering pumpkin or winter squash in water with a touch of salt, pepper and sugar, pureeing the mixture and finishing it with milk, cream or butter.
In that rich, creamy, lightly seasoned soup, the pumpkin’s subtle flavor came through.
Moroccan cooks use a similar method to make soups from hard-shelled squashes. It’s the flavorings that make their pumpkin soups taste different from French ones. Ruth Barnes, author of the just-published cookbook Sharing Morocco, makes her winter squash soup by sautéing chopped sweet onions in olive oil, adding butternut squash cubes and simmering them in chicken stock with cinnamon and a mixture of sweet spices; she blends the soup and serves it garnished with parsley leaves.
In addition to using pumpkins and other hard-shelled squashes to make soups, cooks around the Mediterranean prepare them by poaching, steaming, stewing, roasting and frying.
Poaching in liquid and steaming are the techniques used to cook the gourd, in making pumpkin puree to serve as an appetizer or a side dish. Algerian cooks might flavor the cooked pumpkin with olive oil, crushed garlic, cinnamon, ginger, sugar, salt and pepper; Tunisians might use olive oil, lemon juice, harissa (hot red pepper paste), garlic and cumin. It’s best to season the cooked pumpkin while it is still hot, so that it best absorbs the flavors.
Members of the pumpkin family can be stewed on their own or with meat or vegetables. To make an autumn side dish of butternut squash with chickpeas, Barnes stews the squash with onions sautéed in olive oil, cooked chickpeas, chicken stock, cinnamon, salt and pepper; she sprinkles the dish with ground red pepper and serves it as an accompaniment for lamb, beef or chicken. For her beef tagine with butternut squash, she browns beef cubes seasoned with cumin, paprika, ginger and other spices with onions and garlic sautéed in olive oil, and cooks them with the squash, tomatoes, broth and fresh herbs. (See recipe.)
Pumpkin or winter squash pieces roasted with olive oil make a delicious side dish. They can also be the basis of an appetizer such as the roasted squash and bread salad made by Aglaia Kremezi, author of the just-published Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. To prepare it, she bakes cubes of peeled butternut squash with olive oil, oregano, salt and semi-hot red pepper flakes in a hot oven, and combines them with croutons made of sourdough bread pieces baked with olive oil. She finishes the salad with yogurt-tehina sauce and fresh mint leaves, drizzles it with fruity olive oil and sprinkles it with fine sea salt.
Sautéing is the technique used by Sicilian cooks to prepare sweet-and-sour pumpkin. Clarissa Hyman, author of Cucina Siciliana, makes that dish by sautéing pumpkin slices with garlic cloves in olive oil. She then marinates the pumpkin in a quick sauce of wine vinegar heated with sugar, cinnamon and mint. (See recipe.)
Southern Italian cooks make a similar dish of marinated pumpkin without the sugar and the cinnamon. For the marinade, they sprinkle wine vinegar, salt, pepper, sliced garlic and fresh mint over the sautéed pumpkin.
Recently, I learned a dry-cooking technique for pumpkin at a Turkish cooking class taught by Ayse Demirkan. To make the popular pumpkin dessert called kabak tatlisi, Demirkan combined peeled pumpkin cubes with sugar in a pan, without adding water. As the pumpkin was heated, it exuded juices, which formed a syrup with the sugar. This syrup permeated and softened the pumpkin. Demirkan garnished the pumpkin with chopped walnuts and pistachios, which made this simple dessert festive. (See recipe.)
BEEF TAGINE WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH
This recipe is from Sharing Morocco. “The squash picks up the cinnamon, giving it warmth and a slightly spicy flavor,” wrote author Ruth Barnes, commenting that this filling dish is perfect for cool days.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
❖ 1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
❖ 1 tsp. ground ginger
❖ 1 tsp. ground cumin
❖ ½ tsp. turmeric
❖ 1 tsp. cinnamon
❖ ½ tsp. salt
❖ ½ tsp. pepper
❖ 1.35 kg. (3 pounds) boneless beef shoulder, cut into 2.5-cm. (1-inch) cubes
❖ 3 Tbsp. olive oil
❖ 1 large onion, diced
❖ 5 garlic cloves, chopped
❖ 1 400-gr. (15-ounce) can tomatoes, drained and diced
❖ ½ bunch cilantro (fresh coriander), chopped
❖ ½ bunch parsley, chopped
❖ 1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut in cubes
❖ 170 gr. (6 ounces) pearl or baby onions, peeled (see Note below) or thawed frozen baby onions
❖ 1 cup chicken broth, preferably low-sodium, or vegetable stock
In a large mixing bowl, combine the paprika, ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, salt and pepper.
Add beef to the mixture and stir well to season.
In a Dutch oven, stew pan or large tagine suitable for cooking, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion and garlic for 5 minutes or until tender. Add the beef and brown on all sides.
Stir in the tomatoes, cilantro, parsley, squash, pearl onions and broth, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer for 1 ½ hours or until the beef is tender.
Note: To peel fresh baby onions: Put onions in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook 1 minute, rinse under cold water, drain well, and peel. (Frozen baby onions are already peeled.)
SWEET-AND-SOUR PUMPKIN
This recipe is from Cucina Siciliana. Author Clarissa Hyman sautés the pumpkin in olive oil that she first heats with garlic cloves, then marinates the pumpkin in a quick sweet and sour sauce with fresh mint leaves.
Makes 4 servings
❖ 4 Tbsp. olive oil
❖ 4 garlic cloves, peeled
❖ 1 kg. (2.25 pounds) pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, sliced
❖ 4 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
❖ ¼ cup sugar
❖ ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
❖ A handful of mint leaves, roughly chopped
❖ Salt
❖ Peperoncino (hot red pepper flakes) or black pepper
Heat olive oil with garlic cloves in a large frying pan.
Add the pumpkin in batches and cook until it chars around the edges, tossing and turning frequently; remove each batch with a slotted spoon when cooked. Remove the garlic when it turns brown; do not let it burn.
Remove the pumpkin from the pan with a slotted spoon and arrange it in a serving dish. Discard the garlic.
Sprinkle the vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, mint, and salt and pepper flakes to taste into the pan. Cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes. Pour over the pumpkin.
Leave to cool. Cover and chill for several hours before serving.
TURKISH PUMPKIN DESSERT WITH WALNUTS AND PISTACHIOS
Ayse Demirkan, who taught this dessert at a Turkish cooking class in her home, noted that you can garnish it with shredded coconut instead of or in addition to the nuts.
You can also flavor it with cinnamon sticks or whole cloves, added to the pan with the pumpkin. If you wish to speed up the cooking, you can add about ¼ cup water at the beginning.
In some homes the dessert is served with kaymak, a thick sweet Turkish cream; crème fraiche or sour cream are also options.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ 2 butternut squashes (about 1.8 kg. or 4 pounds total), peeled and cut in 2.5- to 3.75-cm. (1- to 1½-inch) cubes
❖ 1 to 1 1/3 cups sugar
❖ ½ to 2/3 cup chopped walnuts (for sprinkling)
❖ ½ to 2/3 cup chopped pistachios (for sprinkling)
Combine the squash cubes and 1 cup sugar in a heavy, wide stew pan. If time allows, let stand for 15 to 30 minutes. Heat uncovered over low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes.
Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally.
The squash will give off liquid, which will turn into a syrup, that will begin to bubble. Continue cooking, occasionally stirring lightly, trying not to break up the squash pieces. After cooking the squash for 20 minutes, taste, and add more sugar if you like; stir sugar in lightly and continue cooking over low heat.
Cook until the squash is very tender but still holds its shape and absorbs most of the liquid. The total cooking time is about 30 to 45 minutes. Do not let the squash caramelize.
If there is too much liquid in the pan, continue simmering the squash uncovered until the mixture thickens.
Transfer the squash to a serving dish, and spoon the syrup from the pan over it. Sprinkle with walnuts and pistachios.

Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.