The shift of seasons in the South can be subtle to a Yankee now living in Alabama, like myself, but a recent trip to my local farmers’ market proved to me that fall had arrived. Pumpkins and gourds of all varieties were stacked tall and arranged in corn-husked displays announcing that the weather would soon turn cooler, pies were to be baked and our inner demons were soon to be carved into frightful, candlelit Jack-O-Lanterns to ward off medieval evil spirits and to entice soon-to-be trick-or-treaters to knock at the door!
I marveled that the displays’ “marketing” suggested there was nothing more to the pumpkin than a seasonal decoration, a harvest tablescape or a vehicle for the ultimate front porch scare—“BOO!”
Even small, perfectly smooth, beautifully grooved cooking pumpkins were labeled as “Great for pies, muffins and dessert breads!” “Why are pumpkins only sold for sweet things here?” I wondered.
Don’t get me wrong, I used to buy into the stereotype that the pumpkin was only a sweet—not an appetizer, soup or featured savory ingredient in a main course—until living and cooking in Italy changed all that. There I discovered the pumpkin has other virtues.
Not Just for Sweets Anymore
Standing in an Italian farmers’ market during the fall, surrounded by fruits and vegetables both familiar and strange, I was struck not only by the beauty of the rustic setting, but also by the beauty of the produce itself. Here the everyday and ordinary becomes glorious—and delicious.
For me, the pumpkin (zucca in Italian, pronounced “TZOOK-kah”) was the most striking of all the fall offerings. Sometimes green and yellow, orange with green striping, or a combination of green, white and orange, Italian pumpkins—rough skinned, blemished and studded with warts—were often the ugliest items at the market. They didn’t look sweet, that’s for sure.
Then, like a bow-headed stepchild or a three-legged-dog, I saw there was a beauty in their non-conformity—a pride in their individuality, so opposite of “Jack,” their smooth-skinned and carved American cousin. They inspired me to cook, to savor their visual beauty with every bite. But here there’s no tradition of pumpkin pie.
In Italy, the pumpkin looks and is treated more as a vegetable than the fruit that it is. Served as a ravioli filling with brown butter and sage, roasted as a “potato” spear with olive oil and grated parmesan cheese, or, as first introduced to me, prepared as a dumpling (gnocchi) in a tomato and basil sauce, the thick-fleshed pumpkin goes beyond the sweetness of “trick-or-treat” and becomes another great fall food to add to your cooking repertoire.
Three Savory Pumpkin Recipes
Here are three fun recipes which feature pumpkin in a savory, non-dessert way, all learned from the Italian grandmother, “Nonna,” who was my cooking professoressa while I lived with her family north of Rome.
Roasted Pumpkin Spears with Parmesan
Pumpkin Risotto with Sage and Spicy Sausage
Minestrone with Pumpkin and Fall Vegetables
When Nonna first asked, “Ti piace di zucca, Marco?” –“Do you like pumpkin, Mark?” I had no idea how much more I would enjoy it after I told her “Sì!” and she prepared these dishes for me.
So let me take you to the savory side of pumpkin right in your own kitchen. Buon Appetito!
Mark Leslie, who loves to cook for anyone with an appetite, vacations in Italy every year and lives to eat his way through every plate of pasta and cone of gelato placed before him. His first book, Beyond the Pasta: Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family, tells of his life in Italy while cooking with an Italian grandmother. He shares his food experiences on his blog at www.beyondthepasta.com. A Chicago-area native and “Yankee” by birth, Mark has lived in Alabama for over 24 years, and celebrates the fact that he started life eating farina, progressed to grits, and finally arrived at polenta. Buonissimo!
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