Written and photographed by Carrie Vasios
I’m sorry to say that the pumpkin is the underachiever of American cuisine. Though honestly, the blame needs to be put on us, the consumer, and not the unhappy pumpkin. Spread the word; the pumpkin is underserved in its current role as pie filling or (allegedly) flavoring seasonal coffee drinks.
For starters, the pumpkin is certainly as versatile as any other member of the squash family. While to some people the butternut squash might still be sadly limited to soup, I’ve noticed it’s been breaking serious ground as a member of the roasted vegetable club. And of course, eating zucchini is old hat—perhaps because most people don’t even realize it’s a squash. What happened to the pumpkin?
You see, just like other squash, the pumpkin’s taste profile easily straddles the sweet/savory divide. Just take a look at what the rest of the world is doing with pumpkin. In Southeast Asia, pumpkin often appears in sweet dishes. Indians, for example, make kaddu ka halwa, a dessert dish similar to a creamy pumpkin pudding. The pumpkin also appears in savory dishes in Japan: their Japanese pumpkin, also known as the kabocha squash, is a favorite in vegetable tempura.
In my mind, however, we should all be following the Mexicans for their lead in the pumpkin culinary arts. They make smoky braised pumpkin; they put pumpkin in enchiladas. Candied pumpkin (calabaza en tacha) is a seriously sweet snack made to celebrate the Day of the Dead. They use the seeds (pepitas) to garnish just about anything. And why wouldn’t you? Pepitas are delicious, crunchy little snacks, especially when salted—in addition to being a good source of iron, protein, and over five essential minerals. Pumpkin itself is a powerhouse of vitamin A.
I think maybe people are under the false impression that the pumpkin is inaccessible. “Where do I even buy pumpkin?” you might ask. Well, there are two answers. The first is in that very same aisle in the grocery store where you have probably only ever bought your pumpkin, easily shelved next to the pre-made graham cracker crusts and the condensed milk. There’s no shame—just because it’s rubbing elbows with marshmallows does not make canned pumpkin an unworthy grocery item.
In fact, I’d like to proclaim the glories of canned pumpkin. It’s possibly one of the easiest, tastiest ingredients with which to work. And it’s cheap. If you buy the kind that hasn’t already been flavored to taste like pie, you can add canned pumpkin to just about anything. Soups, cookies, curries, bread, muffins, dips. Waffles. Think about it.
Of course, I’d encourage you to go whole hog and just buy a real-life pumpkin. To be clear, don’t run out and buy one of those huge ones that you’re going to carve into a jack-o-lantern. The type of pumpkin you want to eat is smaller, and therefore sweeter, and sometimes it’s even green. A common edible pumpkin to look for is the Sweet Sugar Pumpkin. Yes, I dream of seeing pumpkin next to the acorn squash at my supermarket. I’ll buy it, carve it, roast it, and toss it with goat cheese, thyme, and farro. I’ll make pork chops and serve it with a pumpkin chutney. I’ll make pumpkin chocolate chip cookies with cream cheese frosting because, let’s face it, they are the best.
I’m afraid that seeing pumpkin in the grocery store is not going to happen until people start to realize that you can even eat pumpkin outside of a pie. I guess I’ll have to satisfy myself with watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and drinking a pumpkin latté. But don’t worry, pumpkin: Linus and I, we believe.
We Italians are well versed in the joys of cooked pumpkin. My grandmother, who is from Naples, is a prime example. Seeing my mother on the way to the garbage to discard of our purely ornamental gourds, she would frown and say, “Wha? You’re just gonna throw them out?” So with my Grammy and her intrinsic faith in the value of all vegetables in mind, I made the following recipe.
Risotto with Pumpkin and Artichoke
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Makes 4 servings
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cups sugar pumpkin, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 6 cups chicken stock, heated
- 1 1/2 cups frozen artichoke hearts, thawed and chopped
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving
- salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons rosemary, chopped (optional)
In a large sauté pan or soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pumpkin and the onion, and cook until the pumpkin is softened and the onion is translucent, about 8 minutes.
Add the rice and stir for 3 to 4 minutes, until toasted. Add the wine and stir to combine.
Add a ladleful of stock (about half a cup) to the pot, and stir continuously until the liquid is absorbed. Continue to add the stock, a ladleful at a time, while stirring the rice. Make sure that the risotto stays at a strong simmer and that the liquid is absorbed before adding more stock. It should take about 20-25 minutes for the rice to become creamy but still al dente.
When the rice has reached this point, add the chopped artichoke and stir to combine. Take the pot off the heat. Stir in the butter and the 1/2 cup of parmigiano. Add salt and pepper to taste. If desired, serve with extra parmigiano and rosemary for garnish.