Pumpkins make good eating

Jean Johnson
10/26/05

PORTLAND, Ore. -- "A couple years ago I put a dozen pumpkins I'd grown in
the garden on the front porch for decor. All the neighbors enjoyed them,
and even the postman said how nice they looked. They weren't carved or
anything, since we eat a lot of winter squash -- pumpkins included," said
Rosie Dennison, a Portland teacher.

"Imagine my dismay, then, when I got up the morning after Halloween and
found them, along with all the other neighborhood jack-o'-lanterns, smashed
and broken in the streets. The teenage boys must have had a heyday, and I'm
pretty sure not a one of them realized they were taking food out of the
mouths of my family."

Corn, beans and squash. Indians savored this fare for millennia, but how
quickly modern society has turned the latter into the mere stuff of
holidays. At best, pumpkins -- one among many in the hearty winter squash
family -- are known in terms of pies, laced with sugar and laden with all
manner of fat in the crust. Forget about all the healthful, savory dishes
tribal women used to make, to the delight of their appreciative families.

Maybe some memories can be revived this year. One way to start is with the
standard corn, beans and squash trio. Once the cooking pot of beans is well
under way, use a heavy butcher knife to halve a pumpkin, either end to end
or crosswise. Scoop out the seeds and take the stem off. Then rub the cut
surface with cooking oil (olive if there's some in the cupboard) and place
cut-side down on a cake pan or cookie sheet that has edges to catch the
juices. Medium-sized pumpkins take around 30 to 45 minutes in a 350-degree
oven. Once they've cooled enough to handle, cooks have the basis for any
number of dishes.

One of Dennison's favorites is a brew that her family enjoys along with
home-cooked beans and corn tortillas that she warms in the oven in foil
until soft. She starts the pumpkin dish with a diced onion and three cloves
of garlic browned in oil, cooked until translucent by adding a few
tablespoons of water at a time. "Onions can't be rushed," said Dennison.
"And try to resist dumping too much water in at once. The idea is to candy
the onions and garlic by adding just enough water at a time to keep things
from burning." She added that if cooks forget and burn the garlic, they
need to start over since the aromatic gets bitter beyond repair when it's
charred.

"Since we used to live in the Southwest, we like chile, so what I do next
is chop up a couple jalapenos with the seeds and pith taken out, and maybe
some Big Jims [mild Anaheim chiles] as well. Once those are soft, then I
just scoop out the pumpkin and fold the whole works together in my skillet.
The green chile looks good with the golden yellow of the pumpkin, and if
it's not bright yellow enough to suit me, I just add a pinch or two of
turmeric," Dennison said. "Then we all gather around the table and tear off
pieces of tortilla and use them to eat the squash and beans with. As the
Hopi say: 'Is ali!'"

Is ali means "it's good"; and winter squash is good, whether it be regular
jack-o'-lantern pumpkins, pie pumpkins, Hubbard, butternut, acorn,
spaghetti, turban, sweet dumpling, ambercup, delicata or striped carnival
squash the size of baseballs. Especially with smaller squashes like
carnivals, all that needs doing is cutting in half and baking. Once done, a
half- or quarter-piece of squash can be served alongside most any dinner,
although those fond of pork find it exceptional with applesauce and some
broccoli (steamed on high without the lid so the vegetable keeps its
vibrant green).

Acorn is perhaps the best-known squash for eating, and cooks everywhere
have been stuffing it for generations. Mixtures of spicy ground beef work
great, as does a fry of diced celery and onion mixed in with some cooked
grains like rice, quinoa or millet and a healthy dose of sage. If either of
these approaches look a little dry, don't hesitate to drizzle a bit of
orange or apple juice over the filling, not to mention tossing a handful of
chopped nuts -- any kind will do -- and maybe some raisins over the dish
before serving.

Indeed, once the crowd bites down on the nuts or raisins (or both, if the
cook's feeling generous), they'll associate is ali with pumpkins and winter
squash. That way, whenever you bring out the savory winter fare, no matter
how creatively you've decided to dress it up, it will be received with
pleasure.

Well, it should be. Like potatoes, winter squashes are the ultimate in
comfort food. Those who walked the Earth generations back knew that, and
those of us here now are remembering as well.

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