Calabaza Rellena con Todo lo Bueno — or — Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good

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Four years ago almost to the day, I was listening to National Public Radio (on KPCC in Pasadena, one of the two NPR stations to which I donate). I heard a woman hitherto unknown to me named Dorie Greenspan wax poetic about a French recipe that seemed to be the most delightful non-dessert pumpkin dish imaginable; she simply called it Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good. Intrigued by the concept, I purchased her most excellent cookbook (Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours), and I’ve made it a number of times, with great success. [Her version is simpler than this one, because there’s no pre-cooking involved; you just slice and dice and stuff and cook. Or, as the French, say, “Voila!” But hang with me here, and you’ll see where I was going.]

As I walked into the market this past Thursday, a cart piled high with gorgeous sugar pie pumpkins greeted me, and I was inspired to take a shot at reinventing the dish with a Southwest/Mexican flair. This is a fine way to introduce pumpkin into a Thanksgiving meal in some form other than pie, and it’s a remarkably flexible recipe. In many ways, this “recipe” sort of resembles a road map, with a thousand thousand routes that will all lead you from your point of departure (the kitchen) to your destination (the table).

You’ll want to note that all measures are approximate, because the pumpkin sizes will vary widely, but if you have leftover stuffing, you can always wrap it in tin foil (or, if you’re trying for a little more Southwest authenticity, a banana leaf or two), and cook it alongside the pumpkin. Arranging and wrapping the banana leaves in a way that will keep the liquid from seeping out may be something of a challenge, but it’s manageable.

This version is gluten-free; it can easily be “veganized” by substituting your favourite vegan cheeses, and full-fat coconut milk for the cream (the reason I suggest the full-fat coconut milk as opposed to soy-, rice-, or almond milk is that the coconut milk better replicates the creamy mouthfeel).

CALABAZA RELLENA CON TODO LO BUENO
(PUMPKIN STUFFED WITH EVERYTHING GOOD, SOUTHWEST STYLE)

Ingredients:

1 pumpkin (approximately 3 lbs/1.5 kg)
1 can (15.25 oz/432 g) corn, drained
4-6 slices of stale bread, cubed (I used Whole Foods’ Sun-Dried Tomato and Roasted Garlic Gluten-Free Bread)
12 oz/345 g Monterey Pepper Jack cheese, shredded (you could also use Cheddar or Gouda or Manchego)
3 Hatch chile peppers (or Anaheim chile peppers), seeded and diced (or a 4 oz/113 g can of diced green chiles)
6-8 shallots, chopped
6-8 stems fresh cilantro leaf (also known as coriander leaf or Chinese parsley), chopped
2-3 cloves garlic (to taste), peeled, germ removed and coarsely chopped
1 tsp/1.8 g dried oregano
4-6 sliced of crisp bacon, crumbled
2 links chorizo (about 1/2 lb/0.25 kg)* [see note on chorizo below]
1 plantain, diced (optional)
1 small or 1/2 large brown onion, diced
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup/80 ml heavy cream (or half and half, if you prefer)
2 tbsp/12 g Cotija cheese, crumbled or grated, for garnish (optional)
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped, for garnish (optional)
3-4 banana leaves, optional (available at most Latino grocery stores)

Directions:

Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350°F/175°C. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, parchment, or a silicone baking mat so that if the pumpkin innards boil over (which they sometimes do, a bit), they don’t soil the inside of your oven.

This pumpkin needs a cleaning out.

This pumpkin needs a cleaning out.

Using a sharp and sturdy knife, carefully cut a cap out of the pumpkin’s top the way you would if making a Jack-o’-lantern. [Ms. Greenspan’s suggestion is to cut at a 45-degree angle. But be careful; the pumpkin rind is tough. I find that a stabbing motion, a la Psycho, is emotionally satisfying, but it’s your call.] The opening should be large enough for you to work inside the pumpkin. Clean the strings and seeds from the cap, and set it aside (we’ll be using it later). Scoop out the loose guts (again, strings and seeds) from the pumpkin’s interior. [The seeds can be cleaned, salted, and roasted later, should you desire, or you can toss them.] Season the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper, and place it on the baking sheet.

Chorizo and onions and plantains, oh my!

Chorizo and onions and plantains, oh my!

Heat a frying pan and cook the bacon until crispy, then let it drain on a paper towel. Peel the plantain and dice it into quarter-inch cubes. Remove the chorizo from its casing and put it, the chopped plantain, and the chopped onion into the still-warm frying pan (which should still have bacon grease in it, so no need for oil), being careful not to splatter hot grease. Cook for about 8-10 minutes, breaking up the lumps of chorizo, and stirring occasionally. Remove plantain, onion, and chorizo from pan with a slotted spoon (or drain in colander over a ceramic or Pyrex bowl, as you don’t want that grease going down your sink) and place in a large bowl. Add the bacon, bread, peppers, cheeses, scallions, garlic, cilantro, and oregano, then toss. Season with a bit of freshly-ground black pepper, and pack the pumpkin with the mix, leaving enough room for the cap to fit back on. [We’ll come back to what to do with any extra filling a little later.] Pour the cream into the pumpkin, and use your judgement to decide whether you need to use all of it; it’s for moistening the ingredients, not immersing them.

All stuffed up...

All stuffed up…

...and capped for cooking.

…and capped for cooking.

Replace the cap and bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours — check it after 90 minutes — or until the pumpkin filling is bubbling and its flesh is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. You may want to remove the cap for the last 20-30 minutes of cooking to brown the top and evaporate some of the liquid.

Note the colour change on the pumpkin. Gorgeous.

Note the colour change on the pumpkin. Gorgeous.

IF YOU HAVE LEFTOVER PUMPKIN STUFFING…
You can moisten it with a little cream (not too much!) and wrap it in a banana leaf, seal it in tin foil, or even put it in a small covered casserole dish, and roast it alongside the pumpkin on the baking sheet. It can come out after 60-75 minutes (after all, it wasn’t insulated by all that pumpkin flesh), but even if you forget, it should still be plenty moist. Alternatively (as this recipe yielded just about enough for TWO small pumpkins), you can freeze the remainder, making the next pumpkin-stuffing party all that much quicker.

Serving:

When the pumpkin is ready, allow it to rest on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes or so before trying to move it. Then, carefully transfer it to a platter and bring it to table. Remember, it’s hot, and the cooking will have reduced the pumpkin’s structural integrity, so take your time. It can either be cut into wedges with the filling spooned over, or you can scoop out pumpkin flesh and filling together. Garnish with the chopped cilantro leaves and/or Cotija cheese. Depending on the size of the pumpkin, the size of your guest list, and the size of your appetite, it can serve as either a main course, or the perfect accompaniment to a turkey or some other fowl.

A little Cotija, and now the stuffed pumpkin is ready to return the favour and stuff you.

A little Cotija, and now the stuffed pumpkin is ready to return the favour and stuff you.

*A NOTE ABOUT CHORIZO: Depending on where you live, the sausage known as chorizo may come in one of two forms. Typically, in Southern California (where I live), it comes in a loose, uncooked state, sometimes packed in a typical intestinal sausage casing (or a plastic one), but it is also sometimes sold without a casing, much like any spiced ground meat. In many other places, including my homeland of Canada, chorizo is generally sold fully cured and has a texture not unlike a dry salame. Either one of these will work, but it’s entirely unnecessary to fry the dried version of chorizo; it can merely be diced (about 1/4 inch is good), and added to the pumpkin stuffing mix just like any of the other ingredients. [You should, however, peel off the casing before dicing it.]

All Hail the Green Goddess! (plus a godlike potato salad recipe)

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How in the world did we ever get from this…

The late, great George Arliss. (photo courtesy Arliss Archives)

The late, great George Arliss. (photo courtesy Arliss Archives)

to this?

Savory & Vibrant. It even says so.

Savory & Vibrant. It even says so.

Funny story, that. It involves a Scots drama critic’s first play, a British star of stage and screen, and a classically-trained hotel chef. [If you just want to skip ahead to the recipe for Green Goddess Potato Salad, not to worry. Just jump down a page or three.]

In 1920, drama critic William Archer took his own advice (from his 1912 non-fiction book Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship) and wrote his first play, something of a pot-boiler called The Green Goddess. It opened, to some acclaim, on 27 Deceember 1920, at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and starred a gentleman named George Arliss. So popular was it that it opened on Broadway (at the Booth Theatre) less than a month later, and toured America for the better part of three years before opening a highly successful (and lengthy) engagement in London.

Along the way — and by the best triangulation available to me, sometime around March of 1923 — it played in San Francisco. While in The City, Arliss stayed at the Palace Hotel (which is still around, incidentally), and dined at the hotel’s restaurant, which at the time was overseen by Executive Chef Philip Roemer. Depending on which story you want to believe, either the chef decided on his own to honour Arliss with a salad dressing inspired by the play, or Arliss himself put the chef up to it as a publicity stunt. Personally, I would like to think the former.

And, before you could say, “Wow, I wonder if this salad topping will still be around and popular nearly a century later,” Roemer had created the Green Goddess dressing. [Before we get into the actual recipe stuff, a couple of notes. Not only was the play successful, but it was made into a movie twice (both times starring Arliss), once as a silent in 1923, and once as a “talkie” in 1930. It’s worth noting that the goddess was more grey than green, as both films were shot in black and white. Arliss was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for the 1930 version (he had won the previous year for Disraeli), but ultimately lost to Lionel Barrymore, who won his only Oscar for A Free Soul. In fact, Arliss himself presented the Oscar to Barrymore.]

Much like the salad dressing’s creation myth (even the hotel’s own website has gotten it wrong, predating the play’s creation by half a decade), the “official” recipes for Green Goddess dressing vary widely. And while I mean no disrespect to any of the bottled versions’ manufacturers, do have a go at making it yourself. It’s dead simple, and it tastes so much better. As for the potato salad, which calls in the original recipe for green beans, I think asparagus (if available fresh) is better suited to it. Both provide a bit of toothiness, but roasted asparagus and roasted potatoes mesh like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

"Fred, I can't believe he compared us to vegetables! He can't even DANCE!"

“Fred, I can’t believe he compared us to vegetables! He can’t even DANCE!”

GREEN GODDESS POTATO SALAD WITH ASPARAGUS
Ingredients
:
3/4 pound/1/3 kg roasted or grilled asparagus
3 pounds/1.5 kg roasted fingerling or “baby” potatoes, halved or quartered according to size
1/4 cup/60 ml olive oil
sea salt
cracked black pepper
Green Goddess Dressing (recipe below)

For the potatoes:

Teeny taters.

Teeny taters.

Preheat oven to 450°F/230°C Halve or quarter potatoes and place in plastic bag with olive oil; shake until coated and arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Liberally sprinkle salt and pepper over. Roast for about 30-35 minutes, or until golden brown. (About 20 minutes in, turn over with spatula for even roasting.) Remove when done, allow to cool, and place in large mixing bowl.

For the asparagus:

Chopped spears that have nothing to do with Britney.

Chopped spears that have nothing to do with Britney.

Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C Wash and trim and place in plastic bag with olive oil (you can use the bag from the potatoes if you wish, although you may need to add a little olive oil); shake until coated and arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Liberally sprinkle salt and pepper over. Roast for about 15-20 minutes, or until slightly browned, but still with a little snap. Remove when done, allow to cool, chop into 1 inch/2.5 cm pieces, and place in large mixing bowl with potatoes. Mix with Green Goddess dressing and chill for 1-2 hours in refrigerator. Devour unreservedly.

GREEN GODDESS DRESSING (adapted from Gourmet magazine)
Ingredients:
3/4 cup/180 ml mayonnaise
3/4 cup/180 ml sour cream
3 tablespoons/45 ml tarragon vinegar or white-wine vinegar
3 scallions, chopped
3-4 flat anchovy fillets, chopped, or 2 teaspoons anchovy paste
1/4 cup/10 g chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons/2 g chopped fresh tarragon
1 teaspoon/5-6 g sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon/2.5-3 g black pepper

Pulse mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, scallions, anchovies, parsley, tarragon, salt, and pepper in a food processor until dressing is pale green and herbs are finely chopped. Refrigerate until use. Editor’s note: You don’t have to be either green or a goddess to make this salad spectacular. Although either would certainly enhance the presentation.

The finished salad, with wooden fish.

The finished salad, with wooden fish.

Note on metric conversions:
Since American measurements are generally based on volume rather than weight, I’ve had to be a little loose with the metric conversions. For liquids, of course, they are pretty precise, but for dry ingredients, they’re a little more fungible (after all, a tablespoon of salt weighs a lot more than a tablespoon of dried parsley flakes). That said, the Interwebs have some conversion guides that have allowed me to get close, and fortunately, this recipe is pretty forgiving. I suppose in future that I would be wise to use my fabulous OXO Good Grips Stainless Steel Food Scale with Pull-Out Display to give an accurate measurement. But wisdom was never my long suit.

Iron Chef Canada On The Eve Of Y2K

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The evening's menu.

The evening’s menu.

This is going to be a little odd in comparison to my normal posts, but I hope all y’all can roll with it.

While cleaning out the garage, I came across a menu from a memorable meal from the last millennium. Back in 1999, I was obsessed with Iron Chef. I had started watching it on a local channel, KSCI (Channel 18 in Los Angeles) when it was broadcast in Japanese without subtitles. [Apart from maybe a dozen or two words, I don’t speak or understand Japanese.] And as it turned out, friends of mine (the Carltons, whose residence is mentioned in the photo) were going to be in Barcelona for the New Year, and I was temporarily house- (and cat-) sitting. Well hey, what’s the point of taking care of a house nicer than one’s own if you can’t throw a party there?

When you get past the foliage, it's actually quite a nice place.

When you get past the foliage, it’s actually quite a nice place.

So I decided that I would invite a few select friends to ring in the New Year. As all the intellegentsia know, the new millennium actually was set to begin on 1 January 2001, but I was ready (in Prince parlance) to party like it was 1999, which indeed it was. And while I was unwilling to restrict myself to a single hour’s cooking time, owing to my lack of sous chefs, I wanted to sorta kinda replicate an Iron Chef meal. I chose as my theme “Pear Battle,” given that pears were in abundant supply, and they could be deployed across a variety of courses.

Sometime during the afternoon immediately prior to the meal, I asked The Bride to scavenge for a couple of ingredients that I had neglected to bring, but which were key to the menu’s success. While she was out and about, I began to assemble the shortcakes for the dessert.

The Bride, with our late, much beloved cat Murray, who wasn't keen on photos.

The Bride, with our late, much beloved cat Murray, who wasn’t keen on photos.

In the process of making the shortcake(s), I underwent a moment’s hesitation about how exactly to ensure they were up to spec. I had vaguely remembered something about minimal processing, but I wasn’t really clear as to why, as I hadn’t made shortcakes for something like a decade. It was then that my deceased Canadian paternal grandmother, Nanny Al, decided to drop by to give me some advice. Appearing life-size (and quite surprisingly corporeal) in Bob and Susan’s kitchen, she told me, “Don’t overmix the batter or it will get gluey.”

Fair play. Bizarre, especially since I hadn’t been drinking, but fair play. The shortcake was spectacular. The meal was a success (due, at least in part, to the remarkable beverage options). And Nanny Al beamed up the way she had beamed in, entirely unbidden, a wraith whose apparent sole purpose in (after-) life it was to rescue her grandson from goofing up some baked goods for a party he was (co-)throwing. Well done, Alice. I miss you all the time, and I’m grateful that you jumped in when I needed your expertise as a baker, part of the rich (and possibly, at least to some degree, genetic) inheritance you bequeathed me.

And you’re more than welcome to visit anytime to give me a little advice… even when it’s not at the dawn of a new millennium.