Tag Archives: Pumpkin

Chili in a pumpkin

God, what a year. I wish I could share some neat, precisely turned summary of everything that’s happened since I last blogged here in April. My head is a stew pot these days, full to the brim with this and that, and I’ve been trying to simmer it all together into a coherent something for months now.

On a personal scale, things have taken a happy turn towards domesticity. Sam and I got engaged in March and courthouse-married in September. We’re planning a big family-and-friends wedding for next summer (don’t ask how that’s going). We bought a townhouse–I still can’t quite believe we bought a townhouse–and moved in at the beginning of November. And we adopted a cat, who as I type this is draped full-length across my lap, purring his glossy black head off.

Meanwhile, of course, the world around us swerved in a scary direction. Our personal happiness has been complicated by fear, anger, frustration, and sadness. I was mostly holding it together until the night of the US elections, but the result of the presidential race cracked me wide open. I’ve made my political opinions clear on this blog before, and what happened on November 8th was the worst of a worst-case scenario. It also exposed some fraying ends in my mental health that I’d been trying to ignore for a while. Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent the past month and a half relying on a mix of therapy and home-grown self-care to keep afloat.

As usual for me, the home-grown self-care includes lots of cooking in our new kitchen. The weekend after the election, we invited friends over and fed them lasagna. I’ve been batch cooking and freezing lots of kitchen-sink stuff–soups, stews, and casseroles. And I got fancy one night and baked some chili in a pumpkin, a warming seasonal treat for Sam and me. This isn’t going to resolve the topsy-turviness of the world, but it’s nourishing, absorbing, and even kind of fun–just what I need these days.


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Three-bean pumpkin chili

This chili started with a not-so-spectacular sugar pumpkin. It arrived in our CSA, cute as a button, and I could tell as soon as I picked it up that it wasn’t a winner. It felt light for its size, and a good pumpkin should feel heavy. When I roasted and pureed it, my instincts were confirmed: the flesh was starchy rather than sweet, and the pumpkin flavor was muted. I’d been planning to make pie, but I knew at first taste it’d be a dud.

Still, the puree had some of the lovely earthiness I expect from freshly roasted pumpkin. What about a savory use? I’d been to the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival a couple weeks before and tried pumpkin chili for the first time. For something sold out of a concession tent in a styrofoam bowl, it was pretty good–the pumpkin made a nice match for the beany warmth of the chili. But I wished with every spoonful that it was spicier, gutsier, more like my favorite bean chili. So when I found myself with a batch of boring pumpkin puree, I decided to try marrying the two chilis.

If it’s possible, I think I like this version even better than the original I based it on. The pumpkin gives the whole thing some backbone, adding sweetness and depth to balance the intense smoky heat. It also helps thicken the chili, creating a rich gravy-like sauce. The chili is ready after as little as an hour of simmering, but if you have the time, let it go for closer to three hours–the long simmer really takes the flavor from good to glorious. The whole thing is wonderfully rib-sticking, perfect for chilly nights like the ones we’ve been having in the Bay Area recently.

This is fabulous with any kind of pumpkin, homemade or canned. I know I’m not the only one to end up with a bland roasted pumpkin, and this is the perfect use for less-than-stellar puree. I ended up adding a bit of sugar at the end to compensate for the lack of sweetness in my pumpkin; this is totally a taste-and-adjust situation. Or you could just use canned puree, which provides plenty of sweetness and makes this a meal you could whip up from the pantry.

pumpkin chili

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Pumpkin burger buns

One of the most memorable meals we had in New Zealand was, unsurprisingly, at the beach. We rented bikes in Hawkes Bay–big clunky cruiser things–and went wine-tasting along the water. It was a postcard-perfect day, with a sharp blue sky, cottony clouds, and incredible jewel-green water. Needing to fill our bellies before a long afternoon of sipping sauvignon blanc in the vineyards, we stopped at a cafe at the end of the road in Te Awanga. It was a sweet-looking place, with red wooden walls and a gabled roof, overlooking a small cove and a rising mass of cliffs in the distance.

This was a place the bike tour company had recommended. It was also one of the few lunch spots around for miles. Based on those points, I think we were all expecting uninspired, overpriced tourist food. But we were pleasantly surprised: everything we ordered was fresh and tasty, with layers of bold and delicate flavor. We locked up our bikes and ate lunch out on the patio, crowding all nine of us onto a single park bench and watching the clouds drift past the sun.

Because several of us were on a quest to eat as much New Zealand lamb as possible, we ordered lamb burgers. They arrived majestically, each piled high with lettuce, carrots, and feta, and sandwiched between two halves of a pumpkin bun. The burgers themselves were juicy and delicious, of course. But the real surprise were those pumpkin buns. They were deeply orange and just the slightest bit sweet, and each was crowned with a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds that crackled and snapped with each bite. They were a perfect foil for the gamy lamb, with just enough character to be interesting but not enough to overwhelm. None of us had ever had a burger on a pumpkin bun before, and now we all wondered aloud why not, since it was clearly a brilliant idea.

I came home determined to recreate those buns, and after a bit of trial and error, I think I finally managed it. These are so much tastier and more interesting than your average hamburger bun, with just a hint of sugariness from the pumpkin and a welcome crunch from the pumpkin seeds. Skip the dainty turkey or salmon burgers here; these buns can stand up to any number of meaty, gutsy, spicy fillings. Lamb is a natural, of course, as is beef or any other red meat, or portobello mushrooms, or richly spiced legumes, or anything else that’s savory and strong. (In my next post, I’ll introduce my new favorite sloppy joe recipe, which was absolute perfection with these.)

pumpkin bun 2

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Pumpkin tomato curry

Last year, sometime between October and Thanksgiving, I bought a can of pumpkin puree. I must have had grand plans for it, but they never materialized. So it sat in the cupboard, alone among the beans and tomatoes, while pumpkin-eating season trundled right on by. It sat, and it sat, and it sat, until last week I took it down and resolved to do something with it. That something turned out to be curry.

I suppose curry isn’t the most head-slappingly creative way to use pumpkin, but it’s a good one. Winter squash goes hand-in-hand with the warm spices that make up curry’s backbone, and its sweetness plays well against curry’s sharpness and spice. Plus, it’s a refreshing 180 from the cinnamon-dusted march of pumpkin pies and pumpkin pastries and pumpkin breads and pumpkin lattes. After so much sugar, it’s awfully nice to find a savory home for pumpkin.

I thought about making a coconut curry, since pumpkin and coconut play so well together. But we’re slipping into the gauzy period between winter and spring, and I wanted something lighter and less unctuous. So my on-the-fly pumpkin curry became a pumpkin tomato curry, brothy and light and orangey-gold. The pumpkin gave the curry a quiet syrupy-sweetness, and the tomatoes provided both liquid and tang. I threw in a cinnamon stick too, to appease the pumpkin gods, and finished off the curry with a pile of cauliflower and shrimp.

There are no efforts at authenticity here. This is a cheater’s curry, built on supermarket curry powder, and quick enough to make on a weeknight. But I don’t really think of it as a weeknight meal, at least not the night you make it. Curry demands time to mingle and deepen; a night or two in the fridge is ideal. The cloud of spicy fragrance that filters up from the rested curry is worth the wait, I promise.

pumpkin tomato curry

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Pumpkin stuffed with coconut rice

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.

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Olla gitana

I feel like I’m running out of words.

Normally when I get home, when I have some flavorful kitchen experiment in my recent past, it’s all I can do to keep my fingers from dancing over the keys to tell the blog world about it. But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed myself using more and more of my words during the workday, on projects and in messages, and I seem to be running out of extras to lay down here. It’s as if I have a finite well of language, and most days I’ve pumped it dry by the time I shut my apartment door behind me.

I don’t like it. It makes me feel older, somehow, more subdued and sedate, knowing that I don’t have words upon words bubbling behind my forehead. And it does a disservice to this blog, my one consistent place to spill creative thoughts. I’ve been wanting to write for the better part of two weeks about the Spanish squash-and-vegetable soup I made, to soothe myself after another stressful workday, but instead it’s sat in my brain and its weight has made me feel guilty. So here it is, creativity be damned.

Olla gitana–literally, “gypsy pot” in Spanish–is one of those things I would never have known about, had it not been for the internet rambling I’ve been doing to distract myself from my empty well. Near as I can tell, this recipe comes from the Murcia region of Spain, where it’s said to have arisen among the Iberian offshoots of the Romani people. In reality, I think it’s a spun fantasy of what those people might eat, with extravagant Spanish inflections–saffron, mint, almonds, garlic. It tastes like a familiar, homey vegetable soup, but with a shiver of unfamiliarity from the saffron and the rich browned garlic and a chopped-up pear, which turns musky and darkly sweet in the broth. I quite liked it; it gave me comfort and a little bit of satisfaction, making something just this side of ordinary on a weeknight at home.

I’m still not sure I have all the words to do it justice right now. But at least it’s a start.

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