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In the San Francisco Bay Area, the four seasons are not easily discernible, but come October, along with shorter days and cooler nights, fall fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, and a dazzling variety of squashes begin to appear in the markets. Among these vegetables and fruits one can find jolly, bright orange pumpkins, popular among cooks and children alike.
Pumpkins are native to Central America and Mexico, but spread all over the world as they are easy to cultivate and very nutritious. They are low in fat, sodium and cholesterol, and high in important nutrients such as vitamins A, B, C, E, iron, magnesium, potassium and riboflavin.
Pumpkins come in a tremendous variety of sizes and colors. The most familiar color is orange, but some varieties of edible pumpkins are green, white, or even pale blue! There is also a beautiful variety of pumpkin called a “fairy-tale pumpkin.” The biggest pumpkins grown for carving into jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, are not ideal for cooking. Smaller pie pumpkins that weigh 2 to 3 pounds, are better for soups, pies, or stuffing, as they are meatier, sweeter, and less stringy than large pumpkins.
Pumpkins have been woven into fairy tales of almost every culture. One of my favorite books that I read to my children when they were young was a folk tale from India retold by Betsy Bang and illustrated by her daughter, Molly Bang. In the story, an old lady sets out to visit her daughter in anticipation of being fed well. On the road, she meets three wild animals who want to eat her. She promises them that she will return later after becoming fat and much tastier. After a pleasant stay with her daughter, where she feasts on tamarind-flavored rice, the old lady prepares to return home. To protect her from the waiting animals, her daughter hides her in a large pumpkin and gives it a good kick to roll her towards home. The old lady in the pumpkin outwits the animals by singing “pumpkin, pumpkin, roll along,” asking them to give her another push until she reaches her home safely. The recipe presented below is inspired by memories of this story.
This recipe for savory stuffed pumpkin involves a four-step process, but the finished product is worth the effort. In addition to being delicious and nourishing, the baked stuffed pumpkin looks very festive!
Savory Stuffed Pumpkin with Tamarind Rice
1 medium-sized, 2-2½ pound pie pumpkin
1 cup [white] rinsed and drained basmati rice
¼ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oil
For tamarind sauce:
5 or 6 large tamarind pods or a lime-sized chunk of dry tamarind paste
2 tablespoons oil
½ teaspoon black mustard seeds
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
3 or 4 dry chilies
(shake out and discard the seeds)
1 teaspoon shredded fresh ginger root
1 tablespoon sugar
2-3 tablespoons crushed or powdered sesame seeds
½ cup roasted shelled peanuts
1) Prepare Pumpkin: Wash the pumpkin and dry. Using a sharp knife, cut a wide circle so that the stem can be lifted off the pumpkin like a lid. With a large spoon scoop out the seeds and fibres inside, being careful not to puncture the body of the pumpkin.
2) Steam the Pumpkin: Place a steamer basket in a pot with 1 cup of water and place the pumpkin with the hollow side down, with the lid next to it as shown in the illustration. Bring the water to a boil and steam the pumpkin for 20-25 minutes till the flesh is soft.
Let it cool. Use a large spoon to evenly scoop out approximately two cups of flesh. Set aside.
3) Prepare Rice and Tamarind Sauce: While the pumpkin is steaming, cook the rice. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil, and stir in turmeric, oil, salt, and rice. Cover and bring to a boil again and then simmer. Cook covered for 15 minutes, turn off the heat, and let the covered pot sit undisturbed.
Tamarind Sauce: If using fresh tamarind pods, soak in warm water for 15-20 minutes. Then remove pods, separate the pulp into the water and save the sauce. If using dehydrated tamarind pulp, soak for 15-20 minutes in warm water and blend the tamarind-water mixture.
4) Put it all together. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil, add mustard seeds, cumin seeds and whole red chilies. Stir in shredded ginger, tamarind sauce and sugar. Cook and stir for a minute. Add the pumpkin pulp and stir-fry for 5 minutes to blend in the tamarind sauce. Next, add the rice, stirring gently, so that the ingredients are not mushy. Stir in crushed sesame seeds and peanuts.
Fill the pumpkin with the rice and pumpkin mixture. Place the pumpkin lid on top and massage the skin on the outside with oiled hands, without pressing too hard. Pour about 1/4 cup of water into a pie plate and place the pumpkin in it. Slide the plate into the pre-heated oven.
Bake for 45-60 minutes, until the outside is shiny golden brown and the stuffing inside is soft and fragrant.
Bring the pumpkin to the dinner table. To serve, use a large spoon and scoop out the filling with some of the meat from inside the pumpkin. This dish goes well with daal or soup.
Notes: (1) To serve as part of a large Thanksgiving dinner, prepare two pumpkins. (2) If using brown rice, cook 1 cup of rice with 2 cups of water, but cook the rice for 45 minutes instead of 15 minutes.
Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine is co-owner of Other Avenues Food Cooperative in San Francisco. Serena Sacharoff is a chef, an illustrator and an art student.