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Published: Tuesday, 10/27/2009

Time for pumpkin: vegetable inspires regional dishes and comfort foods

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Pumpkin is an all-American dish that can be used in soups, entrees, and desserts.

When I attended the Association of Food Journalists conference in October in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, dishes made with pumpkin were on the menu several times.

At a special dinner for food journalists at the acclaimed August in New Orleans, Chef John Besh served pumpkin agnolotti (small crescent-shaped stuffed ravioli-style) in roasted quail pho (soup). Pho is a traditional Vietnamese noodle dish of clear broth. It was absolutely delicious, warm and mildly-flavored.

The use of seasonal pumpkin with the Vietnamese dish shows how much the Vietnamese have influenced food in New Orleans since their immigration to the coastal area beginning in the 1970s.

In Baton Rouge, Chef John Folse, a true culinary historian, prepared "Sharecroppers Lunch" at the Rural Life Museum. The group learned the history of the Louisiana plantations and ate lunch prepared by Mr. Folse consisting of a soup of braised mix of greens with a little piece of charice sausage (inspired by the German settlers) and a half hard-boiled egg. Next to that was nestled a pecan wood-smoked pork po'boy sandwich, baked cushaw and yam casserole, and rum and pecan spice cake. Ice cold root beer was the beverage.

The Baked Cushaw and Yam Casserole was made with Louisiana's green and white crookneck pumpkin and sweet potatoes boiled in a simple syrup and spices, casserole style. It was served in a little tin container with a lid to keep it hot in an old-fashioned metal lunch bucket that sharecroppers would have used.

The mixture of cushaw simmered in sugar and spices combined with the yams is a perfect filling for pies and turnovers as well. This dish shows that not all pumpkins are orange and that there's a variety to chose from.

Midwest cooks also use a variety of pumpkins from miniature to small sugar Halloween pumpkins to Baby Bear and many others. I've been experimenting with pumpkin recipes looking for new ways that you can use canned or fresh pumpkin.

Cook pumpkin by baking, microwaving, or steaming. Just rinse the outside, cut in half, scoop out the seeds, and cook until flesh is soft.

If canned pumpkin is your choice, Chow Line, an online publication of Ohio State University, advises salt-free version; canned pumpkin with salt contains almost 300 mg. of sodium in a half-cup. Don't buy pumpkin pie filling which has more calories and spices, giving it quite a different flavor.

Both canned and fresh pumpkin are a filling food with plenty of fiber and not a lot of calories. A half-cup of canned pumpkin has 40 calories. Fresh pumpkin that has been cubed, boiled, and mashed has fewer calories (about 25 per half-cup) but also less fiber. If opting for fresh pumpkin, choose smaller "sugar" or "pie" pumpkins instead of the jack-o-lanterns.

Chicken Braised with Pumpkin, White Beans, and Spinach uses a long, slow cooking method that tenderizes meats by gently breaking down their fibers. Dark chicken meat like drumsticks and thighs and leg quarters braise well as their extra fat allows for the development of rich flavors. Braising involves browning the meat on the top of the stove and then simmering it over low heat while tightly covered. A small amount of liquid, like wine, chicken stock, or orange juice, is added to the pan to provide moisture.

When Angela Benko tested this recipe for The Blade, she liked the flavor. The chicken didn't dry out. The recipe starts by cooking bacon strips in the pan to braise the chicken and then browning the drumsticks and thighs in the remaining drippings. She thickened the sauce with a little cornstarch.

French-Style Pumpkin Soup with Leeks comes from Slow Cooker Comfort Food by Judith Finlayson (Robert Rose, $24.95). An equal quantity of winter squash such as butternut or acorn can be substituted for the pumpkin.

Canned and mashed pumpkin can be added to cookie dough and muffin, quick bread, and pancake batter. Experiment with the amount. Pumpkin is moist but it can make products heavier that you are accustomed to.

When the Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Cheesecake recipe was tested, Angela Benko used canned pumpkin. This made a very good cheesecake which was garnished with chocolate leaves.

In The Cake Doctor Returns! (Workman, $15.95), author Anne Byrn advises that one cup of canned pumpkin is an easy addition to just about any Bundt cake recipe. Adding any more makes a gummy cake. Save the rest of the can for another recipe by placing it in a glass dish in the refrigerator where it keeps for up to one week.

Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.

Contact her at:

food@theblade.com

or 419-724-6155.



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