Making sense of Cucurbita – Squash and Pumpkins – with two soup recipes

Posted in John's Current Blog on July 5, 2023

Hanoi, Vietnam; July 5, 2023

I have written a lot about the confusing Fabaceae or Leguminosae family of plants, commonly known legumes, peas, or beans. I’ve also attempted to decipher the equally baffling Brassicaceae or Cruciferae – variously called the mustards, the crucifers, or the cabbage family  which includes many “greens,” but also cauliflower, broccoli, and radishes. Up until now I have avoided delving into the gourd family, Cucurbitaceae, because the nomenclature alone is enough to frustrate botanists, much less a home cook and gardener like me.  Native to the Andes and Mesoamerica, like peppers, tomatoes, and corn, squashes and pumpkins are grown all over the world in dizzying varieties. Cucumis – the genus that includes cucumbers and melons – originated in Africa and Southwest Asia. It is also a part of the huge Cucurbitaceae family, but today I’m concentrating on Cucurbita – the squash and pumpkins.

Elizabeth Schneider has written extensively about Cucurbita in her incomparable, encyclopedic books about fruits and vegetables. I highly recommend them not only for information on selecting, storing, and preparing them, but also for her excellent recipes. Cucurbita pepo, the so-called summer squashes, are available year-round throughout developed nations. I have never had a problem finding the zucchini types in Bulgaria, China, Cambodia, or Vietnam. With tender skin and flesh, they lend themselves well to all sorts of cooking and are the species whose flowers are most often prized in the kitchen as well.

Winter squash in Sofia, Bulgaria

But it’s the so-called winter squash or pumpkins that I’m cooking with today. “Pumpkin” really doesn’t tell us much: any large, hard-skinned squash might be called a pumpkin. Of the thirteen varieties explored (and pictured) in Schneider’s comprehensive Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini (William Morrow, 2001), none look like the ones I’m finding here in Vietnam. Nor do they resemble the additional fourteen small-to-medium size winter squashes she describes (among them, the familiar Acorn, Buttercup, Delicata, and Kabocha types). We westerners tend to think of pumpkins as fall and winter vegetables, but here in Southeast Asia, where it’s tropical, they are available year-round. The availability of fresh, local produce that I previously associated with the cooler seasons surprised me when I first arrived four years ago: asparagus, fennel, sweet potatoes, greens, dill, strawberries, and citrus are available all the time.

Pumpkins are used in many dishes here, from soups and braises to desserts. One of my favorites, from Cambodia, is Sankhya lapov, a pumpkin that is filled with coconut custard and baked. It is then chilled and slices are served with fresh fruit for dessert. There are lots of recipes online, some with no eggs and some with as many as six. It’s charming. In Puerto Rico along the “Pork Highway” near San Juan, I had calabaza that had been boiled until tender and dressed with sautéed onions and peppers as a side dish to the slowly cooked suckling pig, its crispy skin a wonder. In Bulgaria, the savory baked goods with layers and layers of flaky pastry that are called banitsa are often filled with pumpkin and walnuts – in which case it’s called tikvenik (tikva is the word for pumpkin). It’s like a cross between baklava and pumpkin pie. Roadside vendors offer a wide variety of the winter squashes as well as roast pumpkins.

Pumpkins are more often used in savory dishes in the Balkans, but I had dinner guests who were surprised to see me combine it with shrimp. It’s an old French recipe that always seemed right at home for me in the South Carolina lowcountry. It’s simple to make, and, like most simple dishes, it’s simply delicious. You’ll want a kilo of pumpkin — 2 to 2-1/2
pounds, peeled, seeded, and chopped. I roast the seeds as did my mother, soaked first in salted water then put them in a low oven until they are dry. From my November 2011 blog:

You don’t need many shrimp for this dish, but I make my soup with shrimp stock that I already have in the freezer. Buy a pound or more of shrimp and use the heads and shells (or just the shells if you can’t get heads-on) to make a stock. You will only need about 200 grams, or 1/4
pound, of peeled raw shrimp for the soup. Celery is traditionally used in this soup, along with a mild stock, but if you don’t have celery, don’t worry about it. It’s very hard to find in Bulgaria. I used celery in both the stock and with the pumpkin. Shrimp always love a little spice, so I added a pinch of cayenne to the mortar (you can see it in the photo). Elizabeth David, the great British food writer who wrote lovingly of French food, warns that “cooked pumpkin … tends to go sour
very quickly, so this soup should be used up on the day, or day after, it is made.”

I poached six whole heads-on shrimp in shrimp stock, sprinkled them with salt and cayenne, then, when time to serve, peeled the bodies only, leaving the heads and tails intact, and used them as a garnish. Totally unnecessary and a mess for the diners. But ours loved it!

Shrimp stock transforms this plain French potage into a superb Creole soup. If you google “potage crème de potiron aux crevettes” you will find dozens of classic recipes. Many include leeks, some include garlic, a few go the pumpkin pie route and call for cinnamon, ginger, or nutmeg. But nearly all are made with water. BORING! A recipe for shrimp stock appeared on the blog over four years ago. I consider it basic to life.

Cream of Pumpkin and Shrimp Soup

We served this soup as a second course at a dinner for the Peace Corps Bulgaria Medical Staff.

1 kilo (2 to 2-1/2 lbs) peeled, seeded, and chopped pumpkin

salt and pepper

1 quart whole milk

1 rib of celery, optional

2 cups shrimp or other stock

200 grams (1/4 pound) peeled raw shrimp, plus shrimp for garnish (see above; optional)

fresh lemon juice and cayenne

2 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

Season the pumpkin with salt and pepper to taste. In a large heavy saucepan, bring the milk to a boil, then add the pumpkin and celery. Simmer until the pumpkin and celery are very soft, a half hour or more. In the meantime, sprinkle the shrimp with a little lemon juice and cayenne, and pound in a mortar.

Puree the pumpkin mixture in batches in a blender, adding a little of the shrimp to each batch, and putting the puree in a clean heavy pot. Simmer the soup very gently for ten minutes, then puree it again (or run it through a fine sieve). Season to taste, and, when reheating to serve,
stir in the butter.

Serves 6.

I have been cooking my way through an old cookbook of mine and today I made this chilled curried pumpkin soup. The recipe appeared in Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah: Dining at Home in the Lowcountry (Clarkson Potter, 1997), but I hadn’t made it in many years and so I decided to make it following the instructions precisely. That book was made over three weeks during which time I cooked and photographed the food (along with my old pal Kelly Bugden, who was the principle photographer) in each of 15 historic homes in those old southern cities. We only had one day to shoot in each house, so I made seasonal dishes that I already knew how to make. I wrote down what I did and that’s what was published. They were already in my repertoire, but I thought it would be fun to go back and follow the recipes to a T. So far, so good.

Photo by Kelly Bugden

Cold Curried Squash Soup, from Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah

When the book was published in 1997, I advised the reader to make yogurt “cheese” by draining plain yogurt. Now, so-called “Greek” yogurt (which is simply drained yogurt) is widely available. I do still advise making your own spice blend for distinctive, bright curries. Use store bought if you must.

For the curry powder:

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1 tablespoon coriander seeds

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  2 teaspoons cumin seeds

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  2 teaspoons ground turmeric

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1/2 teaspoon (about 12) whole cloves

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1 small cinnamon stick (about 3 inches)

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1 teaspoon black peppercorns

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  2 bay leaves

В В В В В В В В В В В  For the soup:

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1 large acorn or butternut squash (about 2 pounds)

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  3 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1 medium onion, chopped

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1 carrot, peeled and chopped

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  1 celery rib, chopped

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  2 garlic cloves, minced

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, preferably homemade

В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В В  yogurt cheese and chives for garnish

В В В В В В В В В В В  To make the curry, roast the coriander and cumin seeds in a skillet over medium-high heat until they begin to jump around and little whiffs of smoke appear. Do not let them burn. Transfer them immediately to a spice mill or blender, add the remaining ingredients, and grind well. This makes about 1/4 cup; store what you don’t use in this recipe in an airtight container in a cool, dry cabinet.

В В В В В В В В В В В  To make the soup, preheat the oven to 350В°. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out and discard the seeds. Place cut side down in a glass baking dish. Add water to about 1/2-inch.

В В В В В В В В В В В  Place the squash in the oven and bake until it is softened, about 45 minutes. Remove the squash from the oven and set aside.

В В В В В В В В В В В  Place the butter in a large heavy sautГ© pan over medium high heat and add the onion, carrot, and celery. SautГ© until the vegetables have softened, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. In the meantime, scoop the flesh out of the squash.

В В В В В В В В В В В  Add the squash, 1 tablespoon curry powder, the garlic, and the broth to the pan and stir well to combine. Allow to cook over medium heat until the flavors have mingled, about 10 minutes, then transfer the soup to a blender or food processor to puree. Puree well, then chill the soup before serving.

В В В В В В В В В В В  Garnish each dish with a dollop of yogurt cheese and chives.

В В В В В В В В В В В  Serves 8.










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