Stop Halloween WasteThis year will not see the usual scale of door–to–door processions of ghouls and ghosts as Halloween moves to a virtual, or lower key, event for many of us. There will, however, still be carved pumpkins aplenty to light up the celebrations, which actually have their origins in pre–Christian Celtic times. Contrary to popular belief we brought the festival to the U.S.A. not vice versa, they just added candy and threw it back at us.
Sadly, in many households, the carved pumpkin is a one night stand and once its light is extinguished it is consigned to the bin and estimates suggest that between 8 to 10 million pumpkins are discarded uneaten every year. In what must surely be one of the largest cases of mass–scale food waste in the UK a lot of people do not even realise a pumpkin is actually edible.
For me, a pumpkin is not just edible but one of the finest culinary fruits (for botanically a fruit it is, not a vegetable) that you can have in the kitchen and much of my summer is spent nurturing a large pumpkin patch so I can enjoy a bountiful harvest throughout the autumn and winter months – because a pumpkin is for life, not just for Halloween!
Growing pumpkinsUnlike some of my colleagues, who grow giant pumpkins for show, I prefer to concentrate on flavour and for me the pick of the bunch is the Crown Prince variety with its steely–blue skin; firm, bright orange flesh and sweet, nutty flavour. It grows to some 4kg in weight and stores in a cool, dark environment for months. I‘ll certainly be using the last of this year‘s crop in early spring!
Whichever variety you choose, sow the seeds under cover during late April and move the young plants to a sheltered, sunny spot outdoors in late May, once all chance of frost is gone, although they can fare well in large pots or grow bags too. Add rich compost or well–rotted manure to the planting spot, water as much as you possibly can and feed with a proprietary high potash tomato fertiliser as soon as the first fruits start to form. Support the fruits off the soil (I use a small paving slab or brick) as they are developing and harvest them ahead of Halloween!
Sweet or savoury?The sweetness of a pumpkin‘s flesh, much like that of a carrot, lends itself to both sweet or savoury uses in the kitchen and, like carrot, it can make a fabulous cake – just use grated raw pumpkin instead in your favourite carrot cake recipe and enhance the flavour with a little powdered cinnamon, nutmeg or sweet all spice.
If you don‘t have a sweet tooth, then there are no end of pumpkin breads, casseroles, soups, risottos, tagines, pastas, curries and more that can be created with this most versatile of ingredients.
Pumpkin pie and pumpkin jamThe best known sweet pumpkin recipe is one the U.S.A. did bring over here, the traditional Thanksgiving dessert, pumpkin pie. I make mine by steaming 500g of pumpkin flesh until soft and then blitzing it with 75g of dark muscovado sugar, a couple of heaped tablespoons of plain flour, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, half a teaspoon of ground ginger and a good grating of nutmeg. To the puree, I mix in 3 beaten eggs and 200ml of milk before pouring it into a 20cm pie tin lined with ready–made sweet shortcrust pastry (sorry Bake Off fans, but there‘s nothing wrong with ready–made pastry!). It will take approximately 45 to 50 minutes for the filling to set and the pastry to cook in an oven pre–heated to 180C (gas mark 4).
My favourite sweet pumpkin recipe though is pumpkin jam and making it is simplicity itself. Just finely dice some pumpkin flesh and put it into a robust saucepan on a medium heat, add enough water to stop it catching and chuck in a good handful of brown sugar – experiment to your own taste but 50g sugar to every 100g pumpkin is your starter for ten! Let the mixture bubble into a sticky pulp then blitz it with a hand blender and put it back on the heat and cook on high until it has started to thicken. Allow the mix to cool before spreading it on a good sourdough or rye bread – it is brilliant with cheeses too, in the same way membrillo is.
Pumpkin breadsThe mention of sourdough reminds me that pumpkin makes great bread too and roasted then liquidised pumpkin added to your usual basic bread recipe (you will require slightly less water) helps create a crisp crust and a beautifully soft crumb with a subtle flavour.
My favourite though is Nigel Slater‘s brilliant pumpkin scone, which I make without fail every year and it‘s a regular on the breakfast, or supper, table here, usually with a good cheese.
Cooked on the stovetop and finished in the oven it is a delightful mix of 300g of steamed and mashed pumpkin with a beaten egg, seasoning and 90ml of milk stirred into 150g of plain flour and ½ teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda that has had 70g of salted butter rubbed into it. You can, of course, add any herbs or spices you fancy. Nigel goes for thyme leaves, I prefer a hit of chilli flakes.
Poured into an oven–safe frying pan the batter cooks for some five minutes or so on each side on the stove top, until lightly browned, before being popped into an oven at 200C (gas 6) for five to ten minutes, until set in the middle.
No wasteDespite the fact pumpkins cause so much food waste at this time of year, one of the joys of using one in the kitchen is that there is virtually no waste. Cleaned thoroughly before being roasted, the skin of many varieties, including my favoured Crown Prince, is not just edible but delightfully so, adding a crisp but chewy texture and earthiness to balance the soft sweetness of the flesh.
Simply slice your pumpkin into wedges, oil and season it, then roast at 180C (gas 4) until the flesh is soft and the skin has crisped. Cut the wedges into chunks and use them in your favourite recipes, I particularly love them as the centrepiece in Thai or Indian curries and last week they worked brilliantly to complement a venison sausage casserole.
The seeds make a great snack too, scoop them out, wash them off and put them on a baking tray. Drizzle them with a little olive oil, season them and add any spices you like (ras el hanout for a North African twang, za‘atar for Middle Eastern, oregano for Italian, garam masala for Indian…) and roast them at 180C (gas 4) for 10 minutes. You can store them in an airtight jar for ages once they have cooled, but they rarely last long enough to get to a jar in this house…
You should, of course, wash and thoroughly dry some of your seeds and store them ready to plant out next year too!
Pumpkin and Gorgonzola Risotto Recipe with Crispy Sage LeavesWith their autumnal arrival – coinciding with Halloween, the clocks going back and Guy Fawkes Night – a pumpkin, to me, means comfort food above all else and few dishes create that warm, satisfying and unctuous feeling more than risotto.
One I put together last weekend checked all of the seasonal boxes and comes highly recommended – but do note that I am instinctive cook, rather than a precise one, so experiment with the quantities to your own taste!
Ingredients (serves 2)200g Carnaroli or Arborio rice 250g pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut into 2cm wedges 1 leek, finely chopped 1 large clove of garlic, crushed or grated 100g Gorgonzola piccante 1 litre hot chicken or vegetable stock (You may not need it all) 75ml vermouth Sage leaves, a small handful, some finely chopped, others left whole Olive oil Salt
- Preheat the oven to 200C (gas 6), oil and season the pumpkin wedges and roast for approximately 20 minutes, until they are beginning to soften.
- While the pumpkin is roasting, fry the leek until softened but not coloured, add the crushed garlic and cook for a minute before adding the rice.
- Stir in the rice and allow it to fry for a minute or two before adding the vermouth.
- Once the vermouth has cooked into the rice, add a ladleful of stock and a generous pinch of salt and allow the pan to simmer very gently.
- Keep adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring constantly, ensuring each ladleful is fully absorbed before adding the next.
- Keep adding stock until the rice is soft but still has a slight bite and at that stage add a teaspoon or two of the finely chopped sage, and stir in the cooked pumpkin chunks.
- Remove from the heat, add the Gorgonzola and stir it through until melted, cover the pan with a lid and allow the risotto to rest while you prepare the crispy sage leaves.
- For the crispy sage leaves, simply heat a little olive oil in a shallow pan, add the leaves in a single layer and fry them for about 30 seconds or so until they begin to crisp up. Place them on kitchen paper to dry, cool and fully crisp.
- Check the risotto for seasoning and serve the bowls of creamy pumpkin and blue cheese spiked rice with a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil and a few crispy sage leaves on top.
- For a wine pairing look to an earthy red, such as Pinot Noir.