Pumpkin theory and magic

I know I started cooking in 1984 because that’s the year Sarah Brown’s Vegetarian Cookbook was first published. I spent a precious ten pounds on it, and I’ve been carrying it around ever since. I simply had no interest in cooking until I turned vegetarian – but I was off to a flying start in 1984, despite being hampered by the filthy, ill-equipped and occasionally frankly infested kitchens of the student houses where I lived at the time.

I seemed to spend a fair bit of my time doing other people’s washing up before I could clear a surface big enough to chop an onion on… the ‘other people’ would then arrive (after the Union bar had thrown them out) and gorge themselves on whatever I had left, lovingly cling-filmed and labeled ‘Keep Off’, in the communal fridge. Yes, I am still peeved.

But Sarah Brown’s big cheery book makes me smile because it reminds me of the sudden and quite unexpected wave of enthusiasm for cookery that overtook me at that time. The page that bears the most stains and splashes is the pumpkin soup recipe.

Whatever possessed me to set about chopping up a pumpkin in those conditions? I guess I didn’t know any better. I had no hang-ups about needing special equipment – I remember using a straight pint glass as a rolling pin (was I the only student making pastry?). I probably cut up that pumpkin with a bread knife. I had no idea what to expect – I only knew that when I saw that big fat orange pumpkin, I was somehow compelled to buy it. There’s a reason why pumpkins are associated with witchcraft. They make me do it. In later years I would often end up with four or five of them, sitting in a hefty row in the kitchen.

I could hardly bring myself to cut them up. What is it about pumpkins? Perhaps their shape – you can hold a pumpkin like a fat hen. Perhaps their color? Growing up in the seventies, I have a soft spot for that retro orange. More likely, though, I think the urgent desire that I experience for pumpkins is linked to the fact that they are not really available all year round. Some vegetables (and fruits) mark the changing of the seasons – pumpkins arrive when the nights start to draw in. It gets me all excited to see them, and I get the urge to fill my house with cozy throws, gather pine cones (though I never know what to do with them) and make soup. Toffee apples have a similar effect.

I accept that a toffee apple is not really, strictly, a seasonal fruit. But I bet it counts towards my five-a-day. I’m surprised, in retrospect, that I stumbled upon a pumpkin at all, in Hull in 1984, but obviously I did, and naturally, I needed to possess it.

I gather recipe books like squirrels gather nuts, but their authors would despair if they were to watch me cooking, as I very rarely follow a recipe to the letter. I’m always tempted to tweak. I’ve learned from teaching cookery classes that there are lots of people who wouldn’t dare to do this. Some people need ‘experts’ and instructions, perhaps because they’re aiming for perfection. I think learning to cook in a student house taught me to find ways to manage with whatever was too hard, and cooking for myself rather than for a demanding or fussy family gave me the leeway to take chances and to produce dishes that were not perfect. When I needed to find something fairly easy to do with a pumpkin, Sarah Brown came to the rescue. But I certainly didn’t have the means to weigh out two pounds (900g) of pumpkin flesh. I probably just sawed the top off the thing, scooped out the seeds and stringy stuff, and then dug out as much of the flesh as possible whilst keeping the outside intact – ready, of course, for the obligatory lantern-making.

Thus I learned that soup-making is basically a question of frying a collection of chopped veg, gently, with the lid on the saucepan, until a consistency generally described as ‘meltingly soft’ is achieved. You then pour on some ‘light vegetable stock’ (ah, how I came to rely upon those green Oxo cubes…), simmer for a bit longer and then blitz the whole lot with a liquidizer. (How on earth did I manage that bit? I probably attacked it with a potato masher.) Herbs and spices are a matter of taste, or trial and error. I was surprised to find that Sarah B’s recipe contains nutmeg and ground coriander – my version these days contains cinnamon and ginger, so clearly there has been some adjustments made in the years since I made that soup for the first time.

Denis Cotter, the Irish vegetarian chef whose books are amongst the best-loved in my vast collection, writes: ‘It would surely strain my imagination beyond the capacity to produce lunch and dinner menus throughout the long autumn and winter without pumpkins. More than that, it would depress me to have to live without them.’ I agree. Pumpkins are a lot of fun, and really, they’re not that difficult to tackle. The danger is in them rolling out from under a blunt knife. Sharp knives really are much safer! Once you’ve managed to cut a pumpkin in half, you can place it firmly on its flat side and cut off the skin – always cut away from yourself. From there, you can easily scrape out the seeds and cut the flesh into chunks or slices.

Toss the pieces in some olive oil, or a mixture of olive oil and butter, and roast them in a moderate oven until they’re tender. This is comfort food of the highest order. I love to add sage or rosemary – Denis Cotter suggests thyme with lemon zest but admits to having ‘a thing about spiking comfort food with a kick’, so often teams pumpkin with chillis, whole cumin seeds or chopped coriander seeds. Yotam Ottolenghi, whose new book, ‘Plenty’, has filled me with pure joy, has a recipe for ‘crusted’ pumpkin wedges – slices of pumpkin roasted beneath a herby, lemony breadcrumb topping. He suggests serving the wedges with a mixture of soured cream and chopped dill. I’ll be making it very soon.

Unlike Denis, I like my comfort food really comfy. Pumpkins do ‘meltingly soft’ exceptionally well, and there’s no better way to make use of this character than in a risotto. One of the best I’ve made came from ‘The Vegeterranean’, the book of recipes from Country House Montali, an award-winning Italian vegetarian guesthouse in the Umbrian hills. Preparation involves cooking up a rich, smooth mash of pumpkin, onion, shallot, and garlic, which is stirred into the risotto when the rice is partly cooked. The recipe also uses grated ginger, lots of lemon juice and a fair bit of white wine, naturally. Memories of this fabulously aromatic dish were awakened when I noticed a pumpkin risotto on the menu at Jamie Oliver’s lovely restaurant in Oxford. I didn’t attempt to resist, but was delighted by an unexpected ‘twist’ – a light, crispy crunchy topping of garlicky breadcrumbs – magic!

Recipe: Pumpkin Comfort

Weighing ingredients is anathema to the preparation of real comfort food. You need something to calm you down and make you feel better – you don’t need any number-related stress. Avail yourself of a substantial baking potato. Peel it and chop it into cube-like pieces somewhere between a centimeter and an inch across. Put these into a shallow oven-proof dish.

Now do the same with a sweet potato of similar size. And one or two red onions. And roughly the same amount again of pumpkin, peeled and chopped in a similar manner. Slosh over some olive oil, some crushed garlic (you know how much you like) and, absolutely essential, a heaped tablespoon or so of chopped fresh sage. Mix it all together. Enjoy the colors. Now take a wedge of blue cheese, crumble it over the dish and mix well. The best way to do this is with your hands. Come on, don’t be scared. Cover the dish with foil (or a lid) and leave it in a medium oven for about 30 minutes. Revisit it to remove the foil and give it all a good stir (not with your hands this time). Continue to cook without the foil until the whole thing turns deeply golden and bubbly, and your entire home is filled with the scent of garlic and sage.

A health warning: this kind of comfort food should not be eaten daily – it’s really for emotional crises and at its most healing and magically potent when enjoyed without accompaniment. If you have to share it, it goes nicely with brown rice.

Top things to do with pumpkins

Denis Cotter is king of the pumpkins. Try his Gratin of roast pumpkin, leeks, sweetcorn and hazelnuts with a Gabriel cheese cream (from ‘Paradiso Seasons’). Yotam Ottolenghi also has a way with pumpkins. Have fun with his Halloween soufflés (from ‘Plenty’).

Pumpkin facts

Opinions vary, but most food historians seem to agree that, in this country, the tradition of hollowing out vegetables to make lanterns dates from thousands of years ago. At Samhain, 31 October, the Celts would extinguish the hearth fires that were so crucial to their lives and gather at communal fires built by the Druids. There they would light torches and carry the new fire back home to reignite the home fires.

As well as symbolizing the end of the year and the beginning of a new year, the fires may have been used to scare away evil spirits and light the way home for the souls of loved ones, since Samhain, the god of death, would allow ghosts to roam on that night. There were no pumpkins in Britain at that time so lamps were fashioned from beets and turnips. It is thought that Irish settlers took the tradition to America, and there discovered that pumpkins made perfect lanterns.

For the ultimate in hollowed out vegetables, take a look at the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra: www.gemueseorchester.org. They’re touring the UK this September – check the website for details of concerts in the Isle of Wight, Malvern, and Aldeburgh.

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