Pumpkin literacy

Finding inspiration in the garden.

pumpkin 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron)
pumpkin 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron)
Recently we attended a lecture by prominent cookbook author Deborah Madison on her latest effort, Vegetable Literacy.
Moderator Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook, asked Madison how she goes about creating a recipe.
Madison, who is famous for her creativity in using vegetables, said she often finds inspiration in her garden.
In her book, she wrote: “I’m convinced that the garden helps us cook better, more easily and, ultimately, more deliciously... The garden is an unending source of the miraculous, a joy that transforms our cooking and increases our pleasure at least a thousandfold. Nothing seems to taste as good as what you’ve planted, tended and coddled to maturity... and that’s why recipes that make use of that garden produce can be quite simple.”
Often, vegetables that grow side by side in the garden also get along well in the kitchen, said Madison.
“Squash are New World natives,” wrote Madison, “and the tradition of planting squash, beans and corn together – the Three Sister Garden – has long been practiced by Native Americans across North America and Mesoamerica. It’s an elegant example of beneficial planting. The beans provide nitrogen to the soil. The squash leaves provide shade, which helps retain moisture, plus their prickly leaves deter insects from exploring the corn and beans. The corn provides a living pole for the beans to climb... In the kitchen... the beans provide protein and the amino acids that are missing in corn. Corn provides the carbohydrates. The squash provides oil and nutrition from the seeds, plus moist and delicious flesh.”
Since pumpkins are members of the squash family, we decided to use the pumpkin that we had just bought in a “Three Sisters” combination – a soup with green beans and corn. The soup turned out smooth and creamy, and the topping of beans and corn provided a tasty, colorful contrast (see recipe).
In answer to Saltsman’s question as to why it’s useful to get to know vegetable families, Madison noted that members of the same plant family often share culinary characteristics. Different members of the pumpkin/winter squash family can be substituted for each other in recipes, even though some have sweeter or denser flesh than others.
Thinking in terms of families also helps cooks figure out what to do with unfamiliar vegetables. Many wild greens taste like spinach, commented Madison, and can be used in similar ways.
“We needn’t be botanists for this magic to unfold,” wrote Madison. “Mostly we just have to look and relationships will show themselves to us...Radish leaves have the same shape as kohlrabi and turnips, and, by the way, all are in the same family... Can you cook radish leaves? [Yes.]”
This reminded us of our own experience growing melons and cucumbers. When we picked a melon that didn’t happen to be sweet enough, we treated it as a cucumber because they belong to the same family. It was good combined with tomatoes and onions in our “Israeli” salad.
Knowledge about vegetables can help cooks use produce in a more economical way. “There are also the parts of plants we mostly ignore because we don’t know that they can be eaten, like sweet potato vines, squash leaves and the tender leaves that wrap a cauliflower and its stalk,” wrote Madison. You can roast pumpkin and winter squash seeds for snacking, or use them along with the fibers that surround them to make a quick stock for a soup or a risotto.
At the market, Madison advises choosing winter squash that is hard and free of bruises and soft spots, especially if you plan to keep it for a while. The stem should be attached and the squash should be heavy. “Lightness indicates that the squash is drying out inside. It may cost less, but it won’t be as good as a heavy squash that still has plenty of moisture.”
When making soups from members of the winter squash family, Madison often flavors them with herbs such as sage, rosemary, basil or mint. Other companions she likes for pumpkin and its relatives are cumin, red chile, garlic, sauteed onions, feta, Gruyere cheese, apples, pears, quince, walnuts, hazelnuts and pine nuts.
When Yakir asked Madison what cuisine inspires her the most, she answered that she likes Middle Eastern flavors. She uses tehina to enrich winter squash puree flavored with green onions and olive oil, for example, and has even planted cumin in order to grow her own.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning books, Fresh from France: Vegetable Creations and Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.
This soup is a variation of a soup we learned to make in France, which had a topping of peas and lettuce. If you like, make a quick stock from the pumpkin seeds and fibers to add flavor to the soup.
Makes 4 servings:
❖ 1 kg. (2¼ pounds) fresh pumpkin or winter squash ❖ 1½ cups plus 2 Tbsp. pumpkin stock (see Note 2 following next recipe), vegetable stock or water ❖ Salt and white pepper ❖ 1 cup milk ❖ Freshly grated nutmeg to taste (optional) ❖ 1 to 2 Tbsp. butter or vegetable oil ❖ 2 leeks, white and light green parts, rinsed thoroughly and sliced ❖ 2/3 cup frozen corn, cooked ❖ 1⅓ cups green beans, cut in about 1-cm. (½-inch) pieces, cooked
Cut pumpkin or squash in pieces and cut off peel. Remove any seeds or stringy flesh.
Cut pumpkin flesh in cubes. Put in a saucepan with 1½ cups stock and a pinch of salt. Cover and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until tender.
Puree pumpkin in a food processor, blender or food mill. Return puree to pan of cooking liquid. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring often. Add milk and bring to a simmer. Cook over low heat, stirring often, 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt, white pepper and nutmeg.
Heat butter in a skillet and add leeks, salt and pepper. Cover and cook over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons stock and cook 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until leeks are tender but not browned. Add the cooked corn and green beans, and cook just until they are hot.
Reheat soup. Ladle into bowls and top each with green bean mixture.
This recipe is from Vegetable Literacy. “Despite the inclusion of red chile, this is not a hot and spicy soup,” wrote author Madison, “unless, of course, you use a lot of it. The sweetness of squash naturally tempers the heat of the chile, as do the cinnamon and mint. I prefer to puree this soup, but you can leave it chunky. Either way, it is not taxing to make and it can be prepared the day before you plan to serve it – or even an hour before.”
Madison recommends using pure ground red chile, not the blend of spices often called chili powder, and choosing medium rather than hot chile, unless heat is what you want.
Makes 4 to 6 servings:
❖ 900 gr. (2 pounds) or more winter squash such as butternut ❖ 2 Tbsp. light sesame or olive oil ❖ 1 onion, chopped ❖ 2 Tbsp. chopped basil ❖ 1 tsp. dried mint, or 1 Tbsp. fresh ❖ 1 (7½ cm. or 3-inch) cinnamon stick ❖ Sea salt ❖ 2 to 3 tsp. ground red chile powder ❖ 4 cups parve chicken-flavored stock, vegetable stock made with squash trimmings (see Note 2 below) or water ❖ 12 coriander seeds, 12 peppercorns and 4 whole cloves, tied in a cheesecloth sachet ❖ 2 Tbsp. heavy cream ❖ Thinly sliced mint leaves, to finish
Peel the squash (see Note below) and cut the flesh into cubes; you should have about 2 cups. If you plan to serve the soup without pureeing it, cut the squash fairly neatly into scant 1.25-cm. (½-inch) cubes so they fit easily into a soup soon (and cut onion neatly, too).
Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the squash, onion, basil and mint and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon stick, 1 teaspoon salt, and chile to taste, followed by the stock and the spice sachet. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook, partially covered, until the squash is tender, 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the cubes.
At this point you can serve the squash soup chunky, with the cream and slivered mint in each bowl. Or you can remove the cinnamon stick and sachet, puree the soup, then reheat it. Stir in the cream, leaving it streaky, and ladle the soup into bowls. Finish each serving with fresh mint and a pinch of chile powder.
Note: If you don’t have a squash that’s easy to peel and chop, bake or steam 900 gr. (2 pounds) squash until soft, about 35 minutes at 190ºC (375ºF) or slightly less time in a steamer.
Scoop out the flesh and measure 2 cups. This method allows you to use squash varieties that are too hard to peel and cube.
Note 2: Squash trimmings stock: Combine the squash seeds and the fibers, surrounding them with 4 cups water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Strain the stock.