Every year I devote more garden space than I should to my Ahab-esque quest to capture one simple prize: Biggest Pumpkin at the Venice Farmers Market.
I avoid ornamental plants and flowers whenever possible. If you can’t eat it, what’s the point? But I seem to make an exception—a huge exception— for a giant pumpkin. Why? I started doing it when the kids were young, a fun way to get them invested in the garden beyond plain old vegetables.
They were barely interested then—yeah, sure dad, you’re doing it ‘for the kids’—and now they are just not.
Here’s the thing: every year I come in Second Place. If I lost, if I didn’t even show, that’s one thing. But I can taste victory, and even though the 20 square feet of vine that swirls over my otherwise productive soil each summer would be better spent on tomatoes or kale or arugula, I find myself each July pumping that corner of the garden up with goat manure and compost, preparing a mound an a moat, and laying a few seeds inside.
This year I even bought a packet of Atlantic Giant seeds from a garden store in Half Moon Bay. My sister lives near there, and I figured the home of the world’s biggest pumpkins would have the best seeds. The seeds, I noticed, were produced in Kansas. Still. I follow a book, too. It’s called How to Grow a Giant Pumpkin. It has photos of people placing their pumpkins on truck scales using a tractor. My biggest pumpkin, so far, was 17 pounds. Maybe this year.
For me, October always revolves around pumpkins, growing one, eating many. We end up inviting lots of people over during the weeklong Sukkot holiday. For almost every dinner I make a stuffed pumpkin. It feeds a lot of people, it tastes good, and it comes to the table with a wow factor. Serve people a stew of cubed orange squash, beans and kale and they’ll silently shrug, no matter how good it tastes. Serve them beans and kale cooked inside a pumpkin, and you get a wow. And you don’t even have to cube the pumpkin.
I stuffed my first pumpkin in 1985, when I worked at the first Il Fornaio in Union Square, San Francisco. A woman who baked alongside me was in charge of staff lunch one day. She hollowed out a pumpkin, filled it with alternating layers of toasted sourdough bread, gruyere and caramelized onions, then poured white wine and heavy cream up to the rim. It went into the bread oven, and when it came out, the flesh melting soft, the interior puffed and gratineed, I just kept thanking her for two things: lunch, and telling me where she got the recipe, from Richard Olney’s Simple French Food. It is still my favorite cook book, my—okay, I’ll say it—Bible.
In fall, Jewish holidays hit the beach like Marines at Normandy, they just keep coming. The stuffed pumpkin is an almost impregnable defense. Make ahead, fill it with dairy or with vegetables or with meat—cook it, reheat it, no matter what, it works. Just remember to use a pumpkin grown with eating in mind. The giant and display pumpkins tend to be stringy, bland and dry. Sugar Pumpkin, Cinderella and some other strains are not just beautiful pumpkins, they are good squash.
As for my non-edible giant pumpkin this year, the weigh in was at 9 am this morning. I dropped my specimen off with Jim Murez, the market director, and went off to a meeting. Three minutes ago, Jim e-mailed me:
“You are the First Place Winner @ 20.5 Lbs. Two others had crop failures. Congratulations!”
Yea! Can there be two sweeter words in the English language besides “crop failures”?
[RECIPE] STUFFED PUMPKIN
Learn the techniques and adjust amounts depending on the size of the pumpkin and your taste. This is a recipe for when want to make this dish start to finish in an hour. Pumpkins are not exactly spun sugar. It is going to be hard to mess this up.
1. Pick your pumpkin. Choose a large eating pumpkin (Sugar, Cinderela, etc). Too big is better than too small. The pumpkin should be free of blemish and heavy for its size. Pick one with a nice stem, which serves as a handle and adds to the table drama.
2. Hollow out the pumpkin. Carve a circle around the top quarter, just where its starts to get wide. Lift off then cut and scrape away all the stringy fiber and seeds. Use a stiff metal spoon and a knife.
3. Season. Rub the inside with olive oil and season with a good dose of salt and fresh pepper. Throw in some garlic as well.
4. Precook. This helps speed things up and ensures your pumpkin will be soft. Replace lid, place on a baking sheet or pan, and bake in a 425 degree oven for 20 minutes, or until just barely tender—you want al dente, not soft.
5. Prepare stuffing. Saute onion with garlic and spices (ras el-hanout, Berber spice, cumin, etc). Add chopped kale, diced potato and soaked or canned garbanzo and some water or stock. ( If you’re using meat brown first, then proceed with onion, etc.) Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer until flavorful.
6. Stuff your pumpkin. Remove pumpkin from oven and add stuffing. Replace lid and return to ven. Bake at 350 degrees until pumpkin is soft. Serve.
There are many variation, unlimited. Go Italian with canelini beans, Italian dandelion, bay leaves and lemon. Go Yiddish with cholent or Sephardic with hamin. Use for a chicken stew or vegetable curry.
For the inspirational, and richest recipe, see Onion Panade in Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, and make it in your pumpkin.