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The World Squash Game

<i> Levy is a cookbook author</i>

Pumpkins have been known to grow to 200 pounds. These giants, however, are best left for showing off at county fairs or carving jack-o'-lanterns. Relatively small ones, especially sugar pumpkins, are better suited to cooking.

Many traditional recipes call for baking pumpkin and firm-skinned winter squash for an hour or two. But there’s a faster way--you can cut off the peel and steam the vegetable in a steamer or in a little water in a saucepan. It’s the tough skin of the pumpkin that makes the heat take so long to penetrate. The flesh itself is tender and cooks quickly.

For savory recipes, pumpkin is interchangeable with winter squash, such as Hubbard, banana, acorn or butternut. Easiest to use are the newly available mini-pumpkins, which don’t even require peeling.

While pumpkin’s sweet flavor and smooth texture motivated American cooks to use it in pies for dessert, cooks in other parts of the world treat it differently.

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Moroccans make savory pumpkin salads with garlic, cilantro and hot pepper sauce. Italians like to cook pumpkin in risotto; in the Abruzzo region on the central Adriatic coast the flavor of the pumpkin-rice combination is enhanced with sauteed onions and pecorino cheese.

In Mediterranean, European and Latin American countries, pumpkin is a favorite addition to vegetable and meat soups because its mild flavor harmonizes well with other ingredients. Brazilian cooks prepare a hearty soup of pumpkin simmered with beef, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes. The Perigord region in central France is best known for its black truffles and foie gras , but in most kitchens you’re more likely to find a modest vegetable soup of pumpkin, white beans, carrots, leeks and celery.

The French love pumpkin also as the main ingredient of soups. For these delicate, velvety-textured soups, the pumpkin is simply cooked in water, pureed and enriched with milk, cream or butter. To emphasize the pumpkin’s natural sweetness, sometimes a little sugar is added and so is nutmeg as in pumpkin pie. The traditional garnish is sauteed croutons, but cooked rice, small pasta shapes, green vegetables or toasted chopped nuts are other favorites for stirring into the soup or sprinkling on top.

The lovely color of pumpkin soup inspired the French to name it creme d’or or golden cream. In the recipes below, depending on whether pumpkin or a winter squash is used, the color of the dish will range from warming yellow to bright orange.

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Toast or pita bread are the best accompaniments for this flavorful, low-fat Moroccan appetizer. When pumpkin is not in season, use winter squash.

PUMPKIN SALAD WITH GARLIC AND CILANTRO

1 whole pumpkin, about 3 pounds

2 cups water

Salt

1 large clove garlic, finely minced

1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce or to taste

2 tablespoons lemon juice

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1 teaspoon caraway seeds

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro plus few small sprigs for garnish

Cut pumpkin into pieces and cut off peel with sharp, heavy knife. Remove seeds and stringy pulp. Cut pumpkin flesh into 1 1/2-inch cubes to make 5 to 6 cups.

Combine pumpkin cubes, water and dash salt in medium saucepan. Bring to boil over high heat. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes or until very tender when pierced with knife. Drain well. Mash pieces with fork, leaving few small chunks. Drain in colander 10 minutes.

Transfer pumpkin to bowl and add garlic, hot pepper sauce, lemon juice, caraway seeds and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season to taste with salt. Mix well.

To serve, spread cold or room temperature pumpkin salad on flat plate. Sprinkle center with chopped cilantro. Sprinkle remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over surface of puree. Surround with cilantro sprigs. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Variation:

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Substitute 2 pounds winter squash, such as Hubbard or banana squash, for pumpkin. (Smaller piece of squash is needed than pumpkin because there is less to peel and trim.)

Each serving contains about:

104.56 calories; 101.20 mg Sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5.61 g fat; 13.98 g carbohydrates; 2.03 g protein; 2.24 g fiber; 48.29% calories from fat.

Bright green vegetables provide a contrast of color and texture to the smooth soup. If you like, follow the French custom and accompany this soup with grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese.

CREAMY PUMPKIN SOUP WITH GREEN VEGETABLES

1 whole pumpkin or winter squash, about 2 pounds

1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons water

Salt

1 cup milk

White pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg, optional

3 tablespoons butter

2 leeks, white and light green parts, rinsed thoroughly and sliced

2 mild lettuce leaves, cut into thin strips

1/2 cup cooked fresh or thawed frozen green peas

Cut pumpkin into pieces and cut off peel. Remove any seeds and stringy flesh. Cut pumpkin flesh into cubes. Place in saucepan along with 1 1/2 cups water and dash salt. Cover and bring to boil. Simmer, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until tender.

Puree pumpkin (reserve liquid in pan) in food processor, blender or food mill. Return puree to pan of cooking liquid. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring often. Add milk. Simmer over low heat, stirring often, 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt, white pepper and nutmeg.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter in skillet. Add leeks and season to taste with salt and white pepper. Cover and cook over low heat 3 or 4 minutes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons water. Cook 5 minutes longer, stirring occasionally, until tender but not browned. Add lettuce and peas. Cook just until lettuce is tender and peas are hot.

Reheat soup. Remove from heat and stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Ladle into 4 bowls and top each with green vegetable mixture. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

198.54 calories; 248.28 mg sodium; 31.55 grams cholesterol; 11.05 grams fat; 22.57 grams carbohydrate; 5.48 grams protein; 3.23 grams fiber; 50.09% calories from fat.

An easy way to turn squash or pumpkin into a colorful accompaniment is to heat the steamed vegetable with sauteed onions, which complement the smooth, sweet flesh. I especially like to use sweet dumpling squash, a ridged squash with a speckled white peel and bright orange meat. The dish is delicious with roasted or broiled chicken.

SQUASH OR PUMPKIN WITH SAUTEED ONIONS

1 whole winter squash or pumpkin, 1 1/2 to 2 pounds

1 cup water, about

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, minced

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

Cut squash into pieces and cut off peel with sharp, heavy knife. Remove any seeds and stringy flesh. Cut flesh into 1-inch cubes and place in heavy saucepan with water. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes or until tender. Add more water if needed. Drain squash.

Heat olive oil in heavy medium skillet or saute pan. Add onion and saute 7 minutes over medium heat. Add squash. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Saute, stirring lightly, about 2 minutes or until coated with onion. Serve hot. Makes 3 or 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

118.77 calories; 93.65 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 4.83 grams fat; 18.92 grams carbohydrate; 2.82 grams protein; 3.03 grams fiber; 36.6% calories from fat.


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