From the Root

Damn Pumpkin

No other fruit (yes, it’s a fruit) evokes such a strong reaction from me. And this time of year, I’m absolutely drowning in it.

Don’t get me wrong, I love taking my five-year-old son to our local pumpkin patch. The look on his face when he’s loading the biggest ones in the wagon cracks me up – he’s so determined, even though he doesn’t like to, in his words, “scoop out the brains” when we get home.

But living in the US, one thing I will never understand is the pumpkin fever that comes over the nation this time of year. 

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I grew up in Scotland and I don’t recall ever seeing a pumpkin patch there. I visited my first patch in Pomona, California and I return each fall with my family as it’s a fun tradition for me now. 

 

I’ve lived in the States for eight years and have had no choice but to succumb to the endless barrage of pumpkin everything that hits American supermarkets, coffee shops, restaurants and bars each fall.

When I saw pumpkin beer on tap, that’s when I knew this country’s love of the pumpkin had gone too far. In my opinion, beer is beer is beer. When you start adding fruit to it, you may as well be ordering a cocktail.

And I’ve seen it all. In addition to the traditional pumpkin pie, there’s also cookies, cupcakes, pancakes, butters, cakes, chocolate, brownies, fudge, ice cream, yogurt, cheesecake and so much more. It never ends.

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I broke down and finally tried pumpkin ice cream this season. Never again. 

 

Just to be clear, I haven’t always been this cranky when it comes to pumpkin.

Growing up in Scotland, pumpkin was something that I enjoyed in savory dishes like my mum’s homemade soup or my sister’s pumpkin ravioli and risotto. Pumpkin was never wildly popular in the UK, and we definitely never ate it in anything sweet.

I was first introduced to sweet pumpkin when I moved from Scotland to London in 2004 and started dating an American. My then-girlfriend and her American expatriate friends would go on and on about pumpkin pie and how it was the food they missed the most while living abroad around the holidays.

A pie…? Really?

I can't speak for all Brits, but when I see pumpkin I think dinner.

I can’t speak for all Brits, but when I see pumpkin I think dinner.

 

To me, the thought of eating pumpkin as a sweet pie was revolting. It would be like me putting sugar on a potato and serving it to you for dessert.     

But, to impress my American lady on her first Thanksgiving away from her family, I dropped a small fortune on a pumpkin pie at London’s Harrods, located in the pricey High Street Kensington area.  

Trying pumpkin pie for the first time – blech! It was unlike any pie I’d ever had before, and definitely not in a good way.

Traditionally, a ‘pie’ in the UK is filled with things like meat, cheese and vegetables. Chicken & Thyme, Steak & Ale and Steak & Kidney pies are what you might find in a pub or restaurant, and I would grab a meat pie at a corner shop coming home from work most nights.

And I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand pumpkin in a sweet pie.

My American girlfriend came home from work one day around that same Thanksgiving with a homemade, savory ‘pumpkin pie.’ Her assistant had made what she thought was a traditional American pumpkin pie, which ended up being a flaky pastry with cooked, stringy, salty pumpkin inside. Hilarious.

My girlfriend’s reaction of disgust was priceless. Now she knew how I felt.     

I spent nearly $30.00 for a small pumpkin pie for my American girlfriend when we were in London. Today, I can buy her a massive pie for $6 at Costco here in the US. Bargain.

I spent nearly $30.00 on a small pumpkin pie for my girlfriend when we were in London. Today, I can buy a massive pie for $6 at Costco in the US. Bargain.

 

Fast forward 12 years and here I am in the States, married to my American lady. I’m still a curmudgeon about sweet pumpkin, though. I prefer it roasted, toasted, creamed or pureed.  

My sister Vanessa, who is an award-winning chef back in Scotland, has a surprisingly different perspective. She’s always looking for ways to use seasonal produce in lots of new and exciting ways, so she keeps more of an open mind than I do.

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I wish I could say my culinary skills were as good as my sister’s, chef Vanessa Daley.

 

Vanessa tells me that since pumpkin’s nutty sweetness can hold up to some bold flavors, the ingredient combinations are nearly endless. Some of her favorite dishes are Fennel and Chili Pumpkin Soup with Crispy Pancetta, Pumpkin Risotto and Pumpkin Curry with Chickpeas. She and I grew up with the same savory palate for pumpkin, but when she visited the US and had her first pumpkin pie, she realized that sweet was just as good.

Hearing from Vanessa – a culinary genius – that pumpkin sweets might not be the worst thing in the world, I figured it might be time to give them a genuine shot.

So, to appease my American wife and prove that I’m not a miserable arse, I recently purchased an array of sweet pumpkin products to try. Maybe I would see the light. Doubtful, though.

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My son’s love of sweet pumpkin stems from his American side. 

 

I tried waffles. Pancakes. Cereal. Some type of spread. Cookies. Bread. Looking back, I’m not sure pumping my gut with pumpkin spice was the best taste-immersion therapy, but I had to get it over with and make my point.  

I’ll admit, the pumpkin bread mix was pretty good. But the other pumpkin products were honestly too sweet. And while I’m on the subject, can someone please explain to me the Pumpkin Spice Latte craze? Can’t we please just drink regular coffee again?

My wife doesn't drink coffee but once a year. It's a decaf Pumpkin Spice Latte with whip cream.

My wife drinks coffee once a year and it’s a decaf Pumpkin Spice Latte with whipped cream.

 

As I approach my eighth Thanksgiving, which is my favorite American holiday (because it’s the day I don’t have to cook and I get to watch football and drink beer all day), I will not be eating pumpkin pie. Instead, I will happily watch my five-year-old son devour his piece of pie and stick his fingers in the rest.  

What I will make this fall in honor of the pumpkin is my sister’s Pumpkin Soup, which I’ve shared below. It’s nothing fancy – just simple, savory ingredients to keep you warm and take advantage of the after-Halloween pumpkin discounts. This is pumpkin the way it was meant to be.

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Pumpkin Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 pumpkin
  • 2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 50g pancetta in lardons 
  • 1 sprig rosemary
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 100g chestnuts, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • Light olive oil
  • 1tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 dried red chili, seeded removed
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

 Steps:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C.
  2. Line a baking tray with parchment paper.
  3. Cut the pumpkin lengthways and remove the seeds then cut each half into 4 lengthways.
  4. Put the fennel seeds and chili into the mortar and pestle along with the picked thyme leaves. Add a pinch of salt and pound up the mix to a paste and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, mix well.
  5. Place pumpkin in a large bowl and the spice and herb mix with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Toss the squash until well coated lay on the tray and roast in the oven until soft and golden brown. Cool and remove the skin then cut into 2cm chunks.
  6. While the pumpkin is roasting, heat a heavy based pan on a medium flame. Put a little olive oil in just enough to coat the bottom and add the pancetta and fry for 2 minutes.
  7. Add the onions, garlic and rosemary, fry for 5 minutes until soft.
  8. Add half the chestnuts and cook for another 2 minutes. If your squash is ready add this followed by enough stock to cover, bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
  9. Take half the soup and blend then pour back into the base.
  10. Taste and season. Serve with fresh rolls and garnish with remaining chestnuts and a drizzle of olive oil.

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