Note: For consistency, I use the term “pumpkin” throughout this article.
This magnificent orange ball is my favorite vegetable in the world, and I’m guilty of calling it squash or pumpkin, depending on what comes out of my mouth first.
Even the most erudite foodie would be hard-pressed to tell you the difference between a squash and a pumpkin. Both terms are applied inconsistently and used loosely to describe certain varieties of both these species. Pumpkins and squash are members of the gourd family, cousins to the watermelon. An internet search and a riff through my numerous food encyclopedias aren’t much help. Some of the things I discover only end up confusing me even more:
“Generally speaking a pumpkin is something you carve, a squash is something you cook and a gourd is something you look at.” (Uh, ok…)
“Orange color sometimes helps determine what is a pumpkin. (Winter) squash have a finer texture and milder flavor, pumpkins have a somewhat coarse, stronger flavor and are generally orange in color.” (So does this mean that if it’s orange, it’s a pumpkin?)
See what I mean by muddling? And then there’s the issue of winter and summer squash, a topic that I won’t get into here because in the Philippines, we only have one type of pumpkin which is commonly called kalabasa, and it’s categorized as a winter squash. Call it what you want.
I’m in love with pumpkins and how they look. So entranced was I once with some carnival squash (middle in above photo) at a Paris market that I was tempted to buy some and stow them in my carry-on so that I could look at them on the long flight back to Manila. My Bin told me I was out of my mind ”“ he’s not at all fond of pumpkin. One of my favorite restaurants, Red, has a stupendous roasted pumpkin that’s served as a side dish. So good is it that it’s often reason enough for me to make a trip there.
With its looks and high marks in nutrition (a rich source of Vitamin A ”“ promotes vision and bone growth!) pumpkins inspire a savory cuisine: pinakbet (assorted vegetables in shrimp paste), guinataang kalabasa at sitaw (pumpkin and string beans in coconut milk), and sometimes in pochero (stewed beef with vegetables). If I can get away with putting it in, it’s going in.
As a sweet, pumpkin is more than just an ingredient. It’s evocative of autumn, but since there’s none of that in Manila, I say that it reminds me of cooler air, feasts, and family. I know I certainly can’t say the same about, say, ampalaya (bitter melon). When I make pumpkin pie ”“ which tastes like chai, don’t you think? ”“ the kitchen is awash in waves of cinnamon and nutmeg and candied ginger along with its topping of brown sugar, butter, and roasted pecans.
This pumpkin rhapsody is brought on by a chef I’ve just met, who, learning about my passion for pumpkin during my interview of him, gifts me with this glorious variety from Australia (see above photo). Not knowing what kind of pumpkin it is, I do a search and discover that this “basketball” is called an ambercup pumpkin, a relative of the butternut squash. Weighing in at just over four pounds, I zip home and set about making pumpkin soup and pumpkin lasagna.
While there are several ways to cook a pumpkin, I prefer to roast it in the oven, which allows its sugars to sweeten and condense. After 45 minutes, I brush the now-tender chunks of pumpkin with a spread of butter and brown sugar to further caramelize the vegetable’s sweetness.
For the soup, it’s a simple put-together of chicken broth, carrots, onions, the pumpkin, pepper, and to intensify the color and add a dimension of flavor, I thrown in some native camote (sweet potato), the one with ivory-colored skin. The soup is finished with a dollop of heavy cream for a velvety feel.
As for the lasagna, I wanted to use whole-wheat lasagna noodles that I found in the supermarket. But since I’m the only one in the household that eats whole-wheat products, I stick with standard semolina flour (white) noodles. There are three layers here in my “orange” lasagna: the bottom of the pan is spread with some cream so that the noodles won’t stick to the glass. On goes a layer of lasagna noodles followed by a cottage cheese-Parmesan cheese mixture. On top of that goes some strips of kesong puti (native white cheese) followed by even more noodles. The last layer is a blend of ricotta cheese that I mix with some fresh spinach that’s been blanched and seasoned with pepper. The remainder of the kesong puti finishes the dish. Bake at 400°F for 20 minutes until heated through and there I have it! Pumpkin has an affinity for nutmeg, its warm heat gives a remarkable depth of flavor, so both dishes are given healthy dashes of it.
I only cook at home when I’m thoroughly inspired, and this is one of those times. Unfortunately, Boo refuses to try what I’ve made — she’s alarmed at the vibrancy of the dishes, and she knows lasagna, one of her favorite foods, to be red and not orange. My Bin, on the other hand, doesn’t share my preference for pumpkin. He likes the soup which is chowder-thick and sweet, even polishing off a bowl with a slice of crusty bread. But the lasagna: “It tastes so… so… vegetarian, Lor.” I burst out laughing. My meat-and-potatoes man, that’s my husband.
As for me, my spirits are through the roof and over the moon at the success of my dishes. The soup is just wonderful, and the lasagna is a mélange of orange and green, creamy and soft, with that indefinable but fine whisper of nutmeg.
Mom’s Crazy About Butternut Squash