Sagacity

William Clement 29 October 2009

Or, Knowing Your Pumpkins. We learn by experience, food can be gruesome at Halloween.

This week William Clement celebrates pumpkin and sage: as good together as for warding off evil.

I went to a Halloween party once where the food was all dyed blue. It made it gruesome, you see. The problem, though, with food dyed blue was nobody fancied it much – found themselves inclined to spread blue butter on their home-baked, blue hotdog roll, to squirt blue mustard into it, even less so to spoon blue baked beans over baked potatoes (microwaved with saggy skins, but mercifully not blue).

The trouble is, Halloween lacks traditional dishes; you feel inspired to invent your own uniquely monstrous creations according to the spirit of the day. Wouldn’t it be funny to make lychees in lime jelly look like eyeballs in green slime? Roflmao.

Pumpkins should be a culinary as well as decorative staple at Halloween, particularly paired with sage. I always think it’s the herb which goes best with them and, like pumpkins with carved faces (and very much in the spirit of things); sage is also used by the superstitious in the warding off of evil spirits. If you Google “smudging” you’ll find no end of useful instruction on sagey exorcism. (“Burn clippings of the herb in a brazier, not a shell as some ‘new age’ shamanic circles do – it is an insult to White Painted Woman” etc.)

That done, don your wizard hat and vampire teeth, set alight your jack-o ‘lanterns, and get on with the serious business of making something good to eat with pumpkins and sage. The pairing, apart from being very apt at Halloween, also has the virtue of being appetising. All that blue food was a formative experience.

Butternut squash is no doubt the commonest member of the pumpkin family to cook with. You can see why. Its dense flesh, with none of the stringiness or wateriness of its various siblings, is very appealing. It loses none of the appeal once cooked, becoming tender, resisting collapse, pureeing beautifully.

If you go to the market this week there are several kinds of pumpkin worth trying. Not among them are the ones they’re flogging for Halloween, which really are stringy and saturated with water – bred for their size. Otherwise, though, there are little ones, knobbly ones, and flying saucer ones. There are ‘hollower’ ones (more gourd-like) and denser ones (more squash-like – the naming is loose). There are massive ones they’ll cut sections off for you. Their bulbous shapes, mottled skins in shades of greens, yellows and terracotta’s, their irregularities and voluptuous imperfections I find utterly charming. They reach the peak of their readiness at this time of year so the variety is all the greater. At the Sunday organic stall I picked up half a dozen very eccentric little ones for £4.Over the last week I’ve amassed a dozen or so – and my room is decked out with them. It isn’t really a problem; they keep excellently if it’s not too warm. Besides, I like the feeling of laying up stores for winter.

However dense the flesh, pumpkins, like all members of the Cucurbitaceae family they belong to (which also includes melons, cucumbers, marrows), contain a good deal of water. Roasting them drives off moisture and concentrates the fruit’s sweet nuttiness. I like to serve a generous slice cut off a giant pumpkin, roasted with garlic and sage, as a simple but dramatic half-moon accompaniment to a pork chop or a joint of chicken and just some good gravy.

At Sainsbury’s you’ll find fewer varieties than at the market, although they do stock “Munchkins” – darling name – which beg to be cooked and served whole. Cut off their lids, season and fill with cream, gruyere and a rasp or two of nutmeg. Bake until the flesh is soft. Very rich and very good on a cold autumn day.

Roasted without accompaniment, the flesh becomes the basis of some excellent dishes, both sweet and savoury. Pureed and mixed with cinnamon, eggs, ricotta and light brown sugar it is the filling for a very fine tart, rather like the American pumpkin pie. Add a quantity of pureed or simply grated pumpkin to brownies or muffins and it will disappear but produce something gloriously fudgy or with carrot-cake qualities: lightness, denseness, moistness.

It’s as a savoury ingredient I like pumpkin best, especially because it occupies that place somewhere between savoury and sweet, vegetable and fruit. It responds very well to strong, almost medieval flavourings. Sage and rosemary but also nutmeg, fennel and cinnamon compliment it very happily. Versatility means pumpkins appear ‘culinarily’ all over the world. You’re as likely to find them in a south-east Asian curry as the stuffing for ravioli in Veneto. I’m grateful and indebted to Rick Stein for passing on that curious dish of ravioli filled with pumpkin, fennel seeds and Amaretti biscuits. Like the misshapen, otherworldly pumpkin that’s the basis of the stuffing, it’s sort of, well, weird. But it’s also excellent with plenty of deeply salt parmesan and sage and lemon butter.

Recipes

Pumpkin ravioli in sage butter

For fresh pasta reckon on an egg per 3or 4oz of ‘Dopio Zero’ flour, depending how large the egg is. Knead together till smooth. Roast slices of a small pumpkin until soft. Cool and mash. Add a handful of breadcrumbs, a teaspoon of ground fennel seed, and an egg yolk. Season heavily. Crumble in Amaretti biscuits – or leave them out. Roll out the pasta and form the ravioli. I use a ravioli tray. (I’d also point out if it seems ridiculous bringing a pasta machine to Cambridge that it makes a very good bookend.) Boil in heavily salted water until cooked and floating on the surface. Melt an ounce of butter and soften in it a clove of garlic, a handful of sage leaves, lemon zest, a squeeze of its juice and salt. Add the ravioli to the foaming butter. Serve with plenty of grated parmesan.

Pumpkin risotto with crispy sage

For each person, soften onion in butter, 2oz each small dice of squash/risotto rice. Add a glass of wine. Add ladles of stock until the rice just cooked and squash soft. Fry sage leaves in olive oil till crisp. Drain and salt them. Season. Stir in a slab of butter, and parmesan. Serve with the sage leaves and the offer of more cheese to grate over. William Clement

William Clement