Creativity in the kitchen is an oddly stodgy thing. There are twists and meanderings and the occasional hairpin turn, but for the most part, my creative process follows a predictable path.
Case in point: my dear friend Isabel hosted an Iron Chef party last weekend. The secret ingredient was pumpkin pie spice–cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and/or cloves. I was told to bring a vegetarian entree. Something in a pumpkin. Maybe with rice.
When a challenge like this comes along, I attack it in stages. They are, approximately:
- Panic. I don’t know what to do. I have no ideas. Anything can be stuffed in a pumpkin. Mushrooms. Nuts. Bread. Pasta. Quinoa. Soup. Potatoes. Tofu. No, not tofu. TOO MANY OPTIONS.
- Fixation. Wait, she said ginger. What if it was candied ginger? CANDIED GINGER. I love candied ginger. Candied ginger is sweet. Candied ginger is spicy. Nobody expects candied ginger in an entree. People will think I am a great kitchen god if I use candied ginger. This is brilliant. Candied ginger will be my ticket to Iron Chef glory. I can think of nothing but candied ginger for two days.
- Free Association. Hmm. Candied ginger. Ginger fried rice. Rice. Coconut rice. Coconut. Coconut and cardamom. Cardamom. Cardamom pistachio cake. Pistachio. I bet pistachios would be good in coconut rice. What if I stuffed the pumpkin with coconut rice? I’m going to stuff the pumpkin with coconut rice.
- Research. Google “coconut rice.” Google “coconut milk.” Google “white rice.” Google “brown rice.” Google “stuffed pumpkin.” Google “stuffed pumpkin recipe.” Google “toasting nuts.” Google “toasting spices.” Google “is candied ginger vegan.”
- Testing. Write out a recipe, in excruciating detail. Test the recipe. Be mildly disappointed that the real thing doesn’t measure up to the orgy of flavor perfection I’d concocted in my head (see steps 1-5).
I will say, though, this time I came awfully close to my perfectionist vision. The rice turned out fragrant and light, with bursts of toasty crunch from the nuts and pockets of sweetness from the ginger. The pumpkin slumped and browned obligingly in the oven, creating a gorgeous caramel-edged spectacle when it came out. The filling held together in pert wedges when the pumpkin was sliced, and then collapsed into a pile of fluffy grains at the touch of a fork.
It’s the kind of thing I just might make again–and that’s high praise.
Pumpkin Stuffed with Coconut Rice (serves 2 generously, or 4 lightly)
One sugar pie pumpkin, about 3 lb
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil or coconut oil
1 medium shallot, diced
1 medium leek, white and light green parts only, washed and thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, diced
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
3/4 cup cooked chickpeas (about half of a 15-oz can), drained and rinsed (optional)
1 cup white or brown rice
1 (15 oz) can light coconut milk OR 1 1/2 cups fresh coconut milk
1/2 cup vegetable broth or water
1/4 tsp saffron threads, lightly crushed (optional)
1/2 cup shelled unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup unsalted cashews or blanched almonds
2 tbsp finely chopped candied (crystallized) ginger
Vegetable oil for brushing the pumpkin
Preheat the oven to 350º F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Use a sharp knife to cut a wide hole around the stem of the pumpkin, as if you were making a jack-o-lantern. Scoop out the seeds and stringy insides from the pumpkin, leaving a clean hollow space. Season the hollow with salt and pepper, and place the pumpkin cut-side up on the baking sheet. Set aside.
In a large saucepan or small stockpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add the shallot, leek, carrot, and a pinch of salt, and sweat for about 5 minutes, or until the shallot and leek are translucent. Add cinnamon and cardamom and cook, stirring frequently, for 1-2 minutes, or until the spices are fragrant. Add chickpeas (if using) and rice, and stir just until all the grains are coated with oil. Add coconut milk, broth or water, saffron (if using), and a large pinch of salt, stirring to combine. Bring to a boil, turn the heat to low, cover, and cook until the rice is moist and slightly undercooked–15-20 minutes for white rice, 30-40 minutes for brown rice. If the rice starts to dry out before it’s ready, add another splash of broth or water.
While the rice is cooking, combine the pistachios and cashews in a small skillet (not nonstick). Place the skillet over medium-low heat and toast the nuts, stirring frequently, for 3-4 minutes, or until they are fragrant. Remove the nuts from the heat and roughly chop them, then set aside.
Stir the toasted chopped nuts and the candied ginger into the rice. Taste and adjust the salt as needed. Transfer the rice to the hollowed-out pumpkin. Place the stem “lid” back on the pumpkin, and brush the outside of the pumpkin all over with a thin layer of vegetable oil. Bake for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the pumpkin is tender but not mushy. In the last 20 minutes or so of baking, remove the “lid” and place it on the baking sheet beside the pumpkin. To test for doneness, poke a thin-bladed knife into the side of the pumpkin–it should meet little to no resistance going in.
Remove the pumpkin from the oven and let it sit for about 10 minutes before serving. Use a serrated knife to cut the pumpkin into quarters or wedges, and serve warm. Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days, and reheated in a 350º F oven.