Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kids Make Pumpkin-Wild Rice Pilaf

Last week I wanted to make something with pumpkin in our "food appreciation" classes to coincide with Halloween. But wouldn't know there wasn't a single pumpkin to be found in the local stores. We'd heard stories that the pumpkin harvest was going to be light this year because of the drought that hit this part of the country. We assumed our East Coast farmers had simply run out of pumpkins.

Well, the pumpkins are back in the Whole Foods this week, along with tons of other squashes. These are not the huge carving pumpkins you display on your front stoop, but the smaller culinary pumpkins, sometimes referred to as "pie pumpkins" or "sugar pumpkins."

I knew this would be an interesting lesson for the kids because it's not every day you skin and slice a pumpkin and then eat it. In fact, it turned out to be an interesting lesson for me as well because--confession here--I've never cooked with a live pumpkin before either. The closest I've ever come is processed pumpkin out of a can.

So how do you skin a pumpkin?

Fortunately, these pumpkins are smaller than a bowling ball and no trick to handle. But you want to create a flat surface so they aren't rolling around the cutting board. Use a large chef's knife or serrated bread knife to cut off both ends--not too much, just a sliver so the inner flesh is showing. Then use that same serrated knife to cut off all the skin, working the blade from top to bottom.

Next, the pumpkin has to be sliced in half to get at the seeds. For this I use a very long chef's knife and a rubber mallet. Position the blade, then tap with the mallet, first at one end of the blade, then the other. This doesn't require too much force.

It's easiest to scoop out the seeds at this point using a spoon. I use a grapefruit spoon with teeth on it. But to get the kids involved, I cut the pumpkin into thin wedges and passed these around so they could remove the seeds themselves. We collected all the seeds to roast later, and bagged the rest of the refuse to compost.

Now, on to the recipe. It's not at all difficult and it uses native ingredients (the pumpkin, wild rice, maple syrup), perfect for November, which is American Indian Heritage Month. For six to eight generous portions, simply cut the pumpkin wedges into 1-inch pieces (about 5 cups). Combine in a large bowl with a medium onion, cut into small dice. Mix in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and 2 tablespoons dark maple syrup. Season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour the mix into a baking pan, add 1/2 cup water. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and place in a 350-degree oven.

Meanwhile, cook the wild rice, placing 1 cup rice in a saucepan with 2 cups of water and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the rice is very tender and beginning to crack open.

After the pumpkin mixture has been in the oven 30 minutes, remove the aluminum foil and bake another 30 minutes, or until the pumpkin is cooked through. Toss the pumpkin mix and wild rice in a mixing bowl and stir in 1/2 cup or more dried cranberries (some dried blueberries would also work) and chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or room temperature.

This recipe came from The Washington Post, perhaps the first time I've used a recipe from that paper that I didn't write myself. And I have to say, if I were doing it again, I would probably do it differently. For instance, the pumpkin could be roasted on a baking sheet to caramelize a little for extra flavor. I would sautee the onions separately to caramelize as well, and I might use red onions rather than Bermuda onions for some extra sweetness and color. The Post's recipe did not call for dried fruit or parsley, but without them I think this dish is extremely plain. You could even add some toasted nuts, such as walnuts or pecans, and maybe some orange zest. At that point it comes very close to the sweet potato salad that we like so much.

While my assistant was mixing the pumpkin and wild rice and setting out serving plates for the kids, we read "Runaway Pumpkin," a rhyming story that just manages to bridge from the youngest kids to the older ones. As far as the food goes, even the younger ones like the combination of pumpkin and maple syrup, and they find the wild rice appealing. But then, kids seem to like rice no matter how it's prepared.


The Baklava Queen said...

That does sound like a good recipe, Ed. I wonder if your pumpkin suffered from the same blandness that some of mine did this year? Just no pumpkin flavor at all. Weather-related?

I've also found that with small pumpkins (about 6" to 8" in diameter), I can "skin" them with a vegetable peeler and not lose quite so much of the pulp as I would by wielding my chef's knife. (Which doesn't speak well for my knife skills, I suppose...)

Joanna said...

I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be giving an American tips about cooking pumpkin - but here goes: the thin-skinned small pumpkins, for example butternut squash, the sort that aren't going to keep for the whole winter ... you don't need to peel them, you can eat the skin once it's cooked. AND you can use it in a puree for, say, pumpkin muffins. It has been my huge revelation for this autumn ... life-transforming, too, because I'm much more inclined to eat pumpkin (roasted, pureed etc) if I haven't had to fight with it first ;)


Ed Bruske said...

Jennifer, I've never had fresh pumpkin before, so I don't know what to compare our with. Not too bland, but certainly not as intense as the stuff you get out of a can. More like butternut squash, I'd say, but a little paler. Ours were a little too big to skin with a vegetable peeler, but on your suggestion we tried it on one of the smaller pumpkins and it did work. I was surprised.

Joanna, you always have an interesting twist on things. But I'm not convinced that the skin on our "pumpkins"--meaning the jack-o-lantern varieties--would really be edible? You think? It's pretty thick and tough. I guess it couldn't hurt to try. Now I could see where the skin on a butternut squash might be edible if you cooked it long enough...