By | Sunday, February 20, 2011 2 comments

Shortly after Halloween, Berkeley Bowl, our local high-end, gourmet, organic supermarket, had bins full of pumpkins out in front of the store marked 10 cents a pound. I could not believe it. I don't think you can buy water for 10 cents a pound at Berkeley Bowl. I went in to check with customer service just to make sure that the sign was right. It was. So I bought a couple hundred pounds of pumpkins and put them in my root cellar. This, then, is one of those non-recipe recipes for using a root-cellar full of pumpkins, where everything is approximate and based on the whims of the moment. I heartily recommend that you read this recipe, then throw it away and do whatever you damn well please.

Start with one nice orange pumpkin (not the jack-o'-lantern kind,) weighing somewhere between 10 and 15 pounds (or 30 or 40 or 50 pounds, adjusting everything accordingly.) Using your chef's knife, cut a large round disc out of the top (retaining the stem as a handle if possible.) Scoop out the seeds and guts. Depending on the type of pumpkin, the seeds may or may not be worth saving and toasting as a snack. Pumpkins have good structural integrity, but won't stand up under their own weight through long cooking, so rest the pumpkin in some kind of ovenproof pot, and place, empty and topless, in a 350°F oven.

You will want to cut up some amount of a flavorful, tough cut of lamb. The quantity will depend on the size of your pumpkin. In my case I took a three or four pound hunk of lamb shoulder from my local halal butcher, hacking it to bits, willy-nilly, with a nice heavy Chinese cleaver. This is a rustic dish, so niceties like careful separating of the bones and proper muscling out of meat go right out the window. Salt the lamb pieces and sear on all sides, then set them aside and deglaze the pan with water to create a nice instant lamb stock. [I find that a wok works great for this.] Chop and slice up some vegetables to add to the mix. I used carrots, onions and some rutabaga. I also threw in a nice handful of dried apricots and something like a cup of pecans.

When the pumpkin is nice and hot, toss in the lamb, stock, vegetables, dried fruits and nuts, and whatever else you might be using. I like to add precooked rice (it takes too long for raw rice to cook inside the pumpkin, and it soaks up too much of the juices.) I also add barley, which I par-cook in a pressure cooker (again, I don't want the barley to be undercooked and I don't want it to absorb too much liquid.) My main spices for this dish are sumac (which you should be able to find at any Middle Eastern grocery store,) cumin, coriander, and salt pepper to taste.

Cover with the pumpkin’s lid, return to the oven, lower the temp to 300°-325°F, and cook until done. This is likely to be something like two or three hours depending upon the size and weight of your pumpkin, what you’ve chosen for fillings, and how full it is. You may also find that the ingredients cook more thoroughly if allowed to bake for a longer time at a lower temperature. Again, this is a function of what ingredients you've chosen to use, and if you like some of the ingredients (e.g. carrots) to remain toothsome, etc.

To serve, spoon out portions of the stew and scoops of the inside of the pumpkin. Use care when scooping out pumpkin, as it can collapse if the walls are breached – much like a medieval castle. Garnish with chopped parsley, yogurt, and more sumac. I also like to add sprinkles of ground, burnt mint leaves, especially on top of the yogurt where the black color contrasts with the white background. Don't bother looking for ground, burnt mint leaves in any store, you'll need to make your own.


As always, if you or any of your diners don't enjoy the results, the secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions. This recipe will self-destruct in 10 seconds. Good luck Jim.


Pumpkins in my root cellar

Since posting this blog entry I have received questions about what kind of pumpkins I cook with. It is a little bit hard to say. Some of the bins of pumpkins at Berkeley Bowl were marked, others weren't. Moreover, though marked with individual varietal names, many of the bins were a jumble of different pumpkins. I believe that I purchased Cinderella (used in the recipe above,) Fairytale, Jaradale (not shown - I ate 'em,) Blue Hubbard (unfortunately, a rat got to them before I did - no joke,) and one Sugar pumpkin which, sadly, turned to mush very quickly - quite a mess! I haven't tried cooking any of the pinkish-white pumpkins you see in the photo, and so far I have failed to ID them. Possibly they are Blue Max (suggestions?) [BTW, the plastic container with red liquid is fermenting red-cabbage sauerkraut - the jar in top is full of water and is just being used as a weight.]

Unfortunately, pumpkins are hard to get in the US after mid-November. My understanding is that this is purely a function of demand. Americans only demand pumpkins in October; after mid November they are gone. However, pumpkins store very well. It should not be difficult for wholesalers or grocers to keep pumpkins as easily as other squashes, apples, tubers, etc. Furthermore, pumpkins could be grown in most of the places that we get all of our out-of-season produce. They could be available year-round, they just aren't.

Also, I had always heard that "jack-o-lantern" pumpkins were grown only for size and appearance and not for flavor - thus not worth cooking. Recently people have been telling me that, while not as good as other varieties, jack-o-lanterns are OK to cook with. Your mileage may vary.

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  1. I especially like the part where I get to burn mint leaves in my kitchen - and I'll have to remember to grow pumpkins,because I've never seen them for 10 cents a pound,and then where I saw this...

  2. Wait Kathleen -- shouldnt you be reminding me that this is very close to a dish that probably would have been eaten by the colonists at Plymouth? My understanding is that pumpkins were an important winter foodstock. They had sheep(right?), they certainly had barley, onions, carrots and other root vegetables (rutebagas?) Rice hadnt arrived yet, but staghorn sumac is native to North America (not the same kind used in Middle Eastern Cuisine, but similar.)

    So really, this is a dish you could probably make at Plymouth if you wanted to. Que no?


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