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.]

Saffron Risotto with Peas and Langoustine

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No, I didn't make my own stock or grate my own cheese this time; please don't judge

No, I didn’t make my own stock or grate my own cheese this time; please don’t judge

In what passes for winter in Southern California, one may on occasion wish for a wintry dish, and nothing fills that bill quite like risotto. There are a million ways to make it, but I had a hankering for some peas, and I had gotten a great deal on some frozen (and pre-cooked) langoustine, so I cogitated on what spice might work well with the two of them; I settled on saffron. I had some that my brother had brought back from Turkey, and a little (slightly fresher, if not as exotic) Spanish saffron from Trader Joe’s, each of which made it into the final mix.

Risotto (or “little rice”) can be traced back to 16th century Milan, though rice’s role in Italian cooking predates that considerably, having likely been introduced by the Arabs who conquered Sicily in the 9th century. By many accounts, saffron arrived in Italy in the 13th century, though it’s not clear who brought it in. Why it took the Italians three centuries to marry saffron and rice in this dish is something of a mystery, but it just bears out the thesis that risotto is the great-granddaddy of the slow cooking movement. Arborio rice, which is central to the dish, is a short-grain rice named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown. [Some areas in Italy use other varieties of rice; Milanese chefs are said to prefer Carnaroli rice, while Vialone nano is more popular around Venice. Neither are as widely available in America as Arborio, though both can be found at Italian specialty markets or through Amazon.]

Two things about risotto: First, don’t be intimidated. It’s time consuming, no doubt, but once you get your head around that, it’s really not hard to make a very tasty, elegant dish that will wow your friends (or, in this case, endear me to The Bride). Second: There is no speed round when it comes to risotto making. Commit to stirring constantly for the better part of 45 minutes. Think of it as a kitchen meditation, where all the world’s cares drop away and you can focus on the gastronomical, physical, and spiritual union of stock and rice.

INGREDIENTS:

• 1 liter (4 cups) vegetable stock, maybe a bit more
• 75g (5 tbsp) unsalted butter
• 30ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
• 1/2 medium brown onion, finely chopped
• 1/2 celery stick, finely chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
• 375g (1 3/4 cups) Arborio rice
• 190g (1 1/4 cups) frozen peas
• 500g (1 lb) frozen cooked and shelled langoustine
• Pinch of saffron threads
• 125g (1 cup) finely grated Parmesan
• Salt & freshly ground black pepper
[Remember, grams are a measure of weight, and cups are a measure of volume, so there’s a little room for movement here. We’re not in a science lab.]

Stock warming nicely

Stock warming nicely

DIRECTIONS:
First, bring the stock just barely to a boil, then set it back to a simmer. If you have not yet defrosted the langoustine (they often to tell you to do it the night before by moving them from the freezer to the fridge, but I rarely plan that far ahead), take them from the freezer, put them in a sealed plastic bag, and set the bag in warm water. Since they will only be at this warming temp for about 40 minutes or so, you don’t need to panic about bacterial bloom or other fishy evils.

Butter and allium products bubbling

Butter and allium products bubbling

Next, heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over low heat until foaming. Add the onion, celery and garlic, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until onion softens. Add the rice and cook, stirring, over medium heat for 1-2 minutes or until the grains appear slightly glassy.

Stir until the rice is coated with butter and begins to turn glassy

Stir until the rice is coated and begins to turn glassy

Add a ladle (about 125ml / 1/2 cup) of the heated stock to the rice mixture and use a wooden spoon to stir until the liquid is completely absorbed. Why wood? It’s so much nicer than plastic, isn’t it?

Adding some stock, then stirring, and stirring, and stirring...

Adding some stock, then stirring, and stirring, and stirring…

Continue to add the stock, one ladle at a time, stirring constantly and allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding the next.

As the rice absorbs the stock, it gets creamier

As the rice absorbs the stock, it gets creamier

Cook until the rice is just tender and the risotto is creamy (this will take at least 25 minutes — DON’T RUSH).

Ready for the last little mix; langoustines, peas, and cheese all added

Ready for the last little mix; langoustines, peas, and cheese

Add the langoustine, peas, and saffron, and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until well combined and heated through. Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Remember: the Parmesan brings its own saltiness, so have a light hand with the NaCl! You can always add more salt — even at the table — but you can’t take it away.

C'est fini! Or, more appropriately, è finito.

C’est fini! Or, more appropriately, è finito.

Spoon the risotto into bowls and serve immediately. Try not to consume it like a just-uncaged wolverine.