Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Pasta with Pumpkin Sauce (with Hints about Baking Pumpkins for Winter Use)

Another of my cooking-to-save-the-planet postings. This one focuses on pumpkin, which is now available throughout the U.S. as fall heads to winter. Because pumpkins begin to be particularly inexpensive as Hallowe'en nears in the U.S. (and they're especially so after Hallowe'en has passed), we always buy several to bake this time of year, so that we can freeze the delicious pumpkin flesh for use in winter meals.

To prepare the pumpkin for freezing or immediate use, I cut a medium pumpkin in half (carefully, since the knife can easily slip and cause a nasty cut). After I remove the seeds and strings, I then pour several generous tablespoons of olive oil into each half and then sprinkle salt and grind pepper into the oil. Over this, I place slices of half an onion (half an onion for each pumpkin half). I then put in a bunch of whatever fresh herbs I have on hand, or if I have no fresh herbs, I add some dried ones. I tamp all of this down a bit into the pumpkin cavity before popping the pumpkins into the oven.

Today, I happened to have in the freezer two bunches of mixed herbs I had seen on sale a few weeks ago, which were advertised as herbs to put inside a chicken as it's baked. Since these were on sale because they were beginning to be past their prime, I put them into a jar and froze them until I needed them. Each bunch was a mix of thyme, rosemary, and sage--good seasonings to go with pumpkin.

I put the two pumpkin halves with their oil, onion, and herb mix into a fairly hot oven--400 degrees. I bake pumpkin on the bottom of the oven, since the point is not so much to brown and dry out the flesh as to bake the entire half into a rich, almost caramelized, reduction. And the bottom of the oven works better for this.

I don't cover the pumpkins for most of the baking. The amount of time needed for baking the pumpkin will vary according to its size. The point is to bake the pumpkin until the peel begins to brown and the inside is reduced to a puree. This takes several hours, usually. I often put aluminum foil on the pumpkins for the last half hour or so, to keep the flesh from drying out.

When the pumpkins are well-baked, let them cool a bit and then scoop out the flesh carefully. A medium-sized pumpkin will make quite a bit of pumpkin puree. After scooping out the pumpkin, I also take the skin (which is fairly resilient, and will be supple by this point), and squeeze it to get all of the good juice which remains in the shell after I've scooped it free of flesh. (I should note that I scrub the outside of the pumpkin vigorously before I cut it for the oven.)

We froze half of the pumpkin flesh for use later. With most of the other half, I think I will make soup in a few days. For tonight, I took about a cup and a half of the puree, put it into a serving bowl, added a handful of frozen English (green) peas and another of walnuts, and microwaved this.

As the sauce warmed, I grated parmesan cheese and cooked some farfalle pasta. When the pasta was done, I mixed it with the pumpkin sauce and sprinkled the parmesan over.

We also happened to have a bit of creme fraiche--a bit of my approximation of creme fraiche, that is--on hand, and a dollop of that went onto each serving of pasta. I made the creme fraiche by mixing the remnants of a container of sour cream--about a quarter cup--with two cups or so of cream I also had on hand. Both the sour cream and the cream were aging, and I needed to find a way to use them.

After I whisked the two together, I put them into a bowl in a warm place (I put things like this onto our stovetop, near but not on top of the pilot lights). I left the mix there for the good part of a day and then whisked it again and poured it into jars and refrigerated these. The cream then set up into a delicious, nutty-flavored cream similar to creme fraiche, without any of the sourness of sour cream.

We'll keep buying and baking pumpkins in the days to come, and freezing the pumpkin flesh for use this winter. It's wonderful in a pasta sauce, as I've described above, or mixed with some milk and a grating of nutmeg to make a quick, nutritious soup. A hint of cumin brings out the warm undertones of many pumpkin dishes, I find, as does a pinch of cayenne. Also good is a bit of grated orange peel in the olive oil, along with a bit of cinnamon and allspice (and I wouldn't mix these seasonings with herbs). If you're preparing the pumpkin for baking in breads and desserts, it's better to put some butter into the cavity and not use the onions and herbs--only some mixed spices and/or grated citrus peel, if you wish to have any flavoring baked into the puree.

With a simple green salad and a good sharp vinaigrette dressing, who needs more than a pasta dish with pumpkin sauce, a glass of cool white wine, and good bread and butter to celebrate brisk fall evenings?