Squashes - sweet, sour and savory

If you hear a pumpkin dish mentioned in the US, you're likely to hear "pie" in the same sentence. In most Americans' minds, this big squash is destined to be dessert.

squashes in bowl 88 (photo credit: )
squashes in bowl 88
(photo credit: )
If you hear a pumpkin dish mentioned in the US, you're likely to hear "pie" in the same sentence. In most Americans' minds, this big squash is destined to be dessert. Even when it's being served as a side dish, sweetness is the main attribute people look for in pumpkin and its cousins, the orange-fleshed, hard-shelled squashes. The usual way to prepare them is to bake them with lots of sugar and butter. Yet there are other, more healthful ways to cook these beautiful squashes. These vitamin-A-rich vegetables can be a valuable contribution to a meal's nutrition if they're not loaded with saturated fat and sugar. Pumpkins and their relatives are popular in much of the world. Often cooks celebrate their natural sweetness instead of overpowering them with cupfuls of sugar. Indeed, some feel that a little lemon juice or another sour food highlights their sweet character even better. This is the preference in India, where "Pumpkin has been cultivated... since prehistoric times" according to Julie Sahni, the author of Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking (Morrow, 1985). A childhood favorite of hers is pumpkin in a sweet-and-sour sauce with fenugreek (the seeds used by Yemenites to make hilbeh dip) and coriander seeds. She adds a touch of jaggery (Indian brown sugar), and for the sour component, she sprinkles the dish with mango powder made from very tart mangoes. Yamuna Devi, who wrote The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking (Bala, 1987), also balances pumpkin's sweetness with tart flavors. She stews pumpkin with radishes and fresh peas and accents them with gingerroot, cumin seeds and mango powder but no sugar. Persians prepare pumpkins in the sweet and sour mode as well. For a side dish, they brown pumpkin chunks, then simmer them with sour grape juice and sugar. This festive accompaniment is served sprinkled with cinnamon and walnuts. You may have encountered an Israeli-Iraqi specialty, kubeh (meat-stuffed dumplings) with pumpkin, at friends' homes, in restaurants or delicatessens. A friend of mine told me how her mother makes the sauce: You simmer pumpkin cubes with tomatoes and plenty of lemon juice, and sweeten it either with a little sugar or ceylan (date syrup, which you can buy bottled). In many homes the emphasis is on the sour, so this sauce could be described as sour and sweet. Kurdish families prepare a similar pumpkin sauce for beef, and often add raisins. For Turkish and Armenian cooks, yogurt's tangy flavor makes it a pleasing topping for sauteed pumpkin. Armenians like pumpkin and lamb stew flavored with green pepper, garlic, tomatoes, dried mint and lemon juice without added sugar. Some European cuisines feature tart flavors with pumpkin, too. In Poland, cooks might make sour pumpkin simmered in a sauce made from the liquid from dill pickles, then finished with sour cream and fresh dill. Germans pickle pumpkin with vinegar, sugar, lemon slices, gingerroot, cinnamon and other spices, writes Nadia Hassani in Spoonfuls of Germany (Hippocrene, 2004). Ukrainians provide their pumpkins with a gentle tang by baking the sauteed slices with sour cream and grated cheese. In 1,000 Italian Recipes (Wiley, 2004), Michele Scicolone writes of an intriguing Sicilian sweet and sour squash dish called "fegato dei sette cannoli" or "liver of the seven cannons," named for a famous but poor district in Palermo, where people substituted squash in a liver recipe. The baked squash is marinated with garlic, parsley and a sauce of vinegar with a touch of sugar. Bell-shaped butternut squash tastes so good that on busy days you can enjoy it simply cubed and microwaved. You can put out some fresh lemon wedges and a small bowl of sugar and each person can make the squash sweet and sour to his or her own taste. SWEET-AND-SOUR PUMPKIN AND TURKEY STEW WITH BULGUR WHEAT My interest in Kurdish food grew after I attended an exhibition of Kurdish culture and cuisine in Jerusalem years ago. This entree is an adaptation of a Kurdish pumpkin stew. Generally meat is used but for this lighter dish, I use turkey. 1 to 1.25 kg. butternut squash (dalorit) or pumpkin (dla'at) 3 to 4 Tbsp. vegetable oil 700 grams boneless turkey, cut in 2.5-cm. cubes 2 onions, chopped 1 green pepper, diced (optional) an 800-gram can tomatoes, drained and chopped salt and freshly ground pepper 1 Tbsp. sugar, or to taste 3/4 cup medium bulgur wheat 1/4 cup raisins (optional) 2 or 3 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice, or to taste Peel squash. Remove seeds and strings. Cut squash meat in 2.5-cm. pieces. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a stew pan. Add turkey and saute lightly over medium heat in 2 batches, removing each as it changes color. Add half the chopped onions and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes or until golden. Return turkey to pan. Add green pepper and tomatoes and cook uncovered 5 minutes. Add squash, 1 1/4 cups water, salt, pepper and sugar. Stir and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat, occasionally stirring gently, for 30 minutes or until turkey is tender (dark meat will take longer than light). Heat remaining oil in a heavy medium saucepan. Add remaining onion and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add bulgur wheat and saute, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups water, salt and pepper and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until water is absorbed. Taste and adjust seasoning. Finish turkey stew by adding raisins and 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Cook for 5minutes or until raisins soften. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more sugar or lemon juice if needed. Serve stew spooned over bulgur wheat. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast (HarperCollins).