Pumpkins the Italian Way
Cinderella pumpkin: an heirloom variety
Being part of a large group such as the Cucurbitaceae family - which includes gourds, melons and marrows - can lead to identity problems, if the pumpkin's experience is anything to go by. The hard-shelled, firm-fleshed, long-keeping pumpkin shares the name 'squash' with its thin-skinned, soft-fleshed perishable cousins such as zucchini and scallop-edged pattypan squash, which is of the same species, Cucurbita pepo . However, the name sharing also occurs with pumpkins of different species, such as C. maxima (which includes the Hubbard squash and Queensland Blue) and C. moschata (such as the winter crookneck squash and butternut squash).
The word "pumpkin" arrived in the English language only in the 17th century, derived from the French pompon, which came from the Latin pepon, denoting a large, ripe melon. Melons were known to the ancients, but not pumpkins of C. maxima or C. pepo species which are New World vegetables. However, such facts did not deter modern writers translating Apocolocyntosis, Seneca's satire of the deification of Claudius, as the "pumpkinification" of the late emperor. In the 19th century, the pumpkin connoted folly and empty-headedness, as gourd and colocynth did in ancient Roman times. (Colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis), the fruit of a trailing vine, is native to Mediterranean region and Asia and is also variously referred to as bitter apple, bitter cucumber or vine of Sodom.)
Through Charles Perrault 17th century rendition of the tale of Cinderella, it became the symbol of a sudden transformation from the sublime to the banal, cast in the role of party pooper. Remember Cinderella's curfew time?
Common culinary uses of pumpkin
The impressive dimensions as well as varied and interesting exteriors of the many varieties of pumpkin have not saved this vegetable from being considered boring. It is often snubbed gastronomically, regarded by many as being little more than pig food. Yet the pumpkin possesses incredible culinary versatility, with applications both sweet and savoury. Whilst its best-known roles are in soup, as a vegetable or in the American dessert pumpkin pie, it also makes for wonderfully moist breads and cakes.
Pumpkins in Italian cuisine: far from mundane!
Northern Italian and Sicilian cuisines feature scores of tantalising pumpkin dishes. The most highly prized pumpkin is Marina di Chioggia (a C. maxima variety). This heirloom pumpkin from Chioggia near Venice, which weighs in around 3 - 4 kg, has grey-green warty ribbed exterior and bright orange flesh. You can buy seeds for this gorgeous cooking pumpkin from good seed suppliers.
Tortelli Mantovani di zucca - fresh pasta pillows filled with roasted pumpkin puree spiked with diced mostarda di Cremona (candied fruits in mustard seed oil), crushed amaretti and a touch of nutmeg (or mace or cinnamon), and dressed with sage and butter sauce - is anything but mundane.
What about risotto di zucca, made by gently sautéing tiny cubes of pumpkin with onions before adding the rice, for a quick no-fuss meal? Especially if you use the no-stir method for making risotto!
The Friulian zucca al forno , comprising a slow-roasted whole pumpkin filled with mascarpone, Emmenthal and Parmigiano-Reggiano; scented with sautéed onions, wild mushrooms and nutmeg, is spectacular both visually and gastronomically. The natural sugars of the pumpkin caramelise and meld with the cheeses as it cooks.
"Mentuccia": used in Sicilian zucca agrodolce
Italian marinated pumpkin dishes
There are numerous regional Italian marinated fried pumpkin dishes. For zucca alla Veneta , lightly floured pumpkin slices are sautéed in olive oil and then arranged in layers, with a torn basil leaves (and sometimes, a smattering of raisins as well) scattered over each layer. A dressing made by boiling white wine vinegar with a clove of garlic, salt and pepper is poured over the layered pumpkin slices and left to marinate, covered, overnight.
With Sicilian zucca agrodolce , pan-fried pumpkin slices are marinated in a sweet and sour sauce. The sauce is made by frying 6 - 7 cloves of garlic (thinly sliced) in olive oil until golden. Sugar is then added to the pan and cooked to a golden caramel. White wine vinegar is then added to the pan and the sauce boiled until it becomes syrupy. Roughly chopped mentuccia leaves are scattered over the fried pumpkin before pouring the hot syrup over. Whilst this dish can be eaten hot, it is much better left overnight and eaten the following day at room temperature. [Note: The term "mentuccia ", usually translated as wild Italian mint, refers to both the small leafed intensely minty Nepitalla (Calamintha nepeta , which is only very distantly related to mints (genus Mentha ) and pennyroyal mint (M. pulegium ).]
Mostarda di Zucca
Italian pumpkin preserves
The pumpkin is a long keeping vegetable but once it's cut, it should be used within a few days as the flesh will rapidly shrivel. Capture the beauty of the pumpkin's flesh by making preserves from it. There are numerous Italian regional variations of pumpkin preserves, with most including mustard flavour through addition of a touch of mostarda di Cremona or dry mustard. Pumpkins ares used on their own for preserves as well as in combination with other autumnal fruits such as figs and quinces.
Mostarda di zucca is gorgeous with cold meats and really simple to make. Gently cook walnut sized chunks of pumpkin in water with some castor sugar and lemon peel. Once the pumpkin is cooked, drain it well. Make a syrup of white wine and sugar (work on a (weight) ratio of 2 parts white wine: 1 part sugar) and boil this mixture until it becomes a thick golden syrup. Make a paste of dry mustard (allow about 1 tablespoon per 100 ml of white wine) with some boiling water and stir it into the syrup. Allow to boil for about a minute. Put the cooked pumpkin into sterilised jars and pour the hot syrup over. Seal the jars and leave it in a cool dark place to mature for at least a month before using
MINESTRA DI ZUCCA CON RISO PILAF
The Italian master of rice, Gabriele Ferron, reversed the Cinderella stereotype when he served pumpkin soup at one of the Italian Academy of Cuisine (L'Accademia Italiana Della Cucina , an membership-based organisation headquartered in Milan with "chapters" of Italian food lovers around the world) dinners in Melbourne.
His rendition, reproduced here, is of such exquisite flavour and finesse as to be worthy of silver service. It calls for either Amarone (a red wine from the Veneto region) or Barolo. These wines carry princely price tags. A friend and one-time food and wine editor, Andrew, came up with the wallet-friendly and eminently workable alternative of spiking a full-bodied red wine with port.
400 g pumpkin, peeled and cut into small cubes
Extra virgin olive oil
¼ onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
½ cup full-bodied red wine (add 2 teaspoons port to the wine if not using Amarone or Barolo)
Approx 300 ml chicken stock
1 ladle cooked carnaroli rice, cooked pilaf style (see below)
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Chopped parsley, and extra virgin olive oil, to serve
In a large a casserole set over low heat, fry the onion and garlic in a little olive oil until golden brown. Add the pumpkin and sauté for a few minutes. Season with salt and pepper, add red wine and cook, covered, over medium heat until the pumpkin is tender. Stir occasionally and add a little chicken stock if the mixture gets too dry.
Puree the mixture in a food processor until completely smooth. Return the pumpkin to a clean casserole and blend in enough chicken stock to produce a thick, creamy soup.
Just before serving, reheat the soup. Stir in the pilaf. Garnish with parsley, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a swirl of extra virgin olive oil.
To cook pilaf-style rice:
Carnaroli is an Italian variety of rice used for making risotto, particularly seafood risotti, as its high starch content allows it to develop an extraordinary creaminess without the addition of dairy.
Gently sauté a little minced onion in olive oil in an ovenproof pan until soft but do not let it colour. Add ½ ladle of raw carnaroli rice and sauté for about 3 minutes. Add 1 ½ ladels of boiling chicken stock. Mix well, cover pan tightly and cook in a very hot (245ºC) oven for 13 minutes. The rice should be cooked perfectly. Remove from the oven and spread it on a tray to cool before add to the soup.