Small, Good Things: Trick, or Treat?

By Joe Dizney

And for my next trick … Pumpkin spice!

No, this is not a gimmick designed to cash in on a trend that has lived far beyond its usefulness, interest and/or questionable inspiration. If that’s what you want, head on over to Starbucks (ostensible originator of this “demon spawn” of overused food flavorings) or the local supermarket for a cardboard tube of “seasonally spiced” Pringles or whatever. I mean, Pumpkin Spice Ale? Really?!?

Gape in wonder at the magnitude of bandwagon-jumping perpetrated by both R&D departments at “innovative” food conglomerates and artisanal “craft” brewers!

Yes, this recipe will feature pumpkin, and the spices are admittedly exotic and pie-centric — cloves, allspice, nutmeg. And OK, there is a certain daredevil quality to a meat-stuffed pumpkin dish called “Cow in the Moon,” but I came by it honestly.

Now I don’t mean to go all meta on you, but I am a little sensitive to recent Internet-meme flurries of Jean Baudrillard–ish postmodern rantings about simulacra vs. simulations, and the decidedly nonrepresentational and blatantly unseasonal nature of most “seasonal” pumpkin spice offerings.

But this is the Hudson Valley, and pumpkins are real and honestly seasonal here, and in the spirit of culinary reclamation I am seeking to honestly rehabilitate a maligned foodstuff.

Cow in the Moon

Cow in the Moon

Pumpkin hardly seems worth the lofty intellectual deconstruction it’s prompted. Along with melons, gourds and squash, the “pumpkin” as we know it is “merely a term of convenience,” or so says William Woys Weaver in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. Pumpkins, as we think of them — orange, globe-shaped, furrowed — are merely a type of hard-skinned winter squash, a relatively nonspecific member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes the aforementioned vegetables as well as cucumbers, zucchini and the like.

All are native to the Americas and as such authentic and worthy ingredients of our local larders. With nearly a thousand cultivars worldwide, the gourd family accounts for the highest number of plant species used as human food and as such rightfully belongs on the Thanksgiving table.

The pumpkin’s connection to Halloween, however, is much more tenuous. The original Jack-o’-Lantern — an Irish conceit — was as likely carved from a turnip or a beet. And those giant cultivars that we carve to grace porches and scare children? They’re really not much good for anything else: the pumpkins that we eat — the New England pie pumpkin, sugar pumpkins, the Baby Pam — as well as the ones that are generally pureed and canned, are more closely related to (and probably long lost cultivars of) the acorn squash. (Nutritionally, that orange color that coordinates so well with black as the Hallmark Cards–approved color palette for All Hallows’ Eve is also a marker of the dietary beta-carotene that the squash family is loaded with.)

But it is the other distinctive characteristic of the winter squash family — that firm hard shell — that suggests and defines this recipe. Pumpkins provide both convenient long-term storage for the edible flesh as well as a convenient cooking vessel and numerous Native American recipes abound describing a mix of wild rice, meat (venison or other game), nuts and berries roasted in the shell. And while a more traditional North American version of this dish would be easy enough to find, this version owes its exotic spices to the island Carib Indians of St. Kitts, which is where I came upon it on honeymoon. Reminiscent of island pasties or meat pies, it’s been a seasonal treat in our family ever since.

And while I can certainly imagine a simplified, straight-ahead casserole of the same ingredients with cubes of squash or pumpkin and more traditional Yankee spices (or maybe even individual, smaller stuffed acorn squash) as a potential Thanksgiving side dish, you can’t beat this one for presentation and entertainment/shock value.

Now you’ve got to admit, that’s a trick and a treat.

Cow in the Moon (Caribbean-spiced, beef-stuffed pumpkin)

Serves 6-8

One 4- to 5-pound sugar pumpkin
2 tablespoons oil for sautéing
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
¾ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground mustard seeds
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 pound ground beef
1 red bell pepper, seeded and deveined, diced ¼ inch
1 bunch scallions, diced small
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups cooked rice (Japonica black & wild rice mixture preferred)
1 cup golden raisins
½ cup coarsely chopped peanuts (or substitute whole toasted pumpkin seeds)

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Fill a pot large enough to hold pumpkin with salted water and bring to a low boil. Cut 5- to 6-inch diameter “lid” from pumpkin; scoop out and discard seeds and strings (unless saving seeds to dry). Gently lower pumpkin and lid into simmering water and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Gently drain and cool.
  2. Heat oil in large skillet. Sauté onion and garlic until transparent; add spices and let it “sweat” for about 2 minutes. Add ground beef and cook, stirring to break up clumps, about 5 minutes. Add bell pepper and continue cooking until meat is browned.
  3. Remove meat mixture from heat. Add rice, raisins, peanuts (or pumpkin seeds) and scallions, then toss until blended. Stir in beaten eggs and adjust seasoning. Salt the inside of the pumpkin and stuff with the meat mixture.
  4. Fill with ½ inch water the bottom of a shallow baking pan large enough to hold the pumpkin. Put pumpkin in pan and bake 1 ½ hour, checking at about 45 minutes. (If exposed stuffing starts to brown, tent lightly with foil.)
  5. To serve, allow to cool slightly and cut into wedges, giving each person both some of the pumpkin and stuffing.

Photo by Joe Dizney


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