A Pumpkin Primer

I grew up with pumpkins. As a child I picked them myself from our neighborhood farm or from my mother’s garden. We carved jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween and had pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving dessert. While pumpkins are native to North America and are widely grown here, the popularity of “pumpkin spice” products (which typically contain no actual pumpkin) and the spread of Halloween traditions from the United States have led to pumpkins becoming more available elsewhere in the world. So, for those of you who may have encountered pumpkins for the first time in recent years and been somewhat at loss for what to do with them, here’s a short introduction from someone who grew up with them.

About pumpkins

Pumpkins are a variety of winter squash. In American English, “pumpkin” typically refers to large, orange or yellow squashes with vertical ribs. In other regions, the word applies to winter squashes more widely. Pumpkins tend to be sweeter than other varieties of winter squash, but for most cooking purposes, you can substitute one kind of winter squash for any other.

Pumpkins grow on sprawling vines on the ground. Some varieties are bred to grow larger than others, but you will usually find pumpkins sold in four sizes for three different purposes: decorative (large), carving, sugar, and decorative (small).

Decorative

Either small enough to fit in your palm or gigantic monsters, these pumpkins are just meant for autumnal decoration around the house or on your front steps. The small ones are too small to carve, while the big ones are often irregularly shaped, having slumped under their own weight while growing. Neither is particularly good for cooking, but you’re welcome to try and see what you come up with.

Carving

Early migrants from the British Isles brought their traditions of carving lanterns out of various root vegetables to their colonies on the coast of North America, where they learned to grow the native squashes from the indigenous peoples. Pumpkins soon became the favored vegetable for the fall custom.

The classic jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are about the size of your head or larger. Their flesh tends to be stringy, watery, and not very good for cooking.

To carve a jack-o’-lantern, start by setting the pumpkin on a flat surface and deciding which side will make the best face. (Pumpkins are often a little lopsided with one half larger or more rounded the other, because of how they lie on the ground while growing.) Next sketch out a face you like with a pencil, marker, or just by making shallow cuts with the tip of a knife.

When you are satisfied with the face, cut the top off in a circle large enough to get your hand in comfortably. It’s a good idea to cut a small diamond-shaped notch half into the top and half into the body of the pumpkin to help you line up the top correctly when putting it back on. Scoop out the seeds and strings from the interior with a large spoon. (Save the seeds if you want to roast them; there’s not much use for the stringy bits.) Scrape away a bit of the flesh on the bottom to make a stable base for the candle.

Carve out the face with a small, sharp knife. In accordance with the principle of “measure twice, cut once,” it’s a good idea to start cutting out the holes a little smaller than you marked them, since you can make them bigger as you go, but not smaller. Once you have all your holes cut through the wall of the pumpkin, cut back the flesh from the inside to widen the holes and allow more light through. It can also help to scrape away at the flesh on the inner surface to make it thinner. (Basically, wherever you have cut through the pumpkin should be wider on the inside than on the outside.)

Take the carved jack-o’-lantern into a darkened room and shine flashlight down through the open top to see how the light comes through and whether there are any places where you need to cut away more of the flesh to get the effect you want. When ready to display, light a tea light or other small candle and put it inside the pumpkin (on a small dish, if you want easier cleanup or worry about the candle burning down), put the top back on, and enjoy!

Once carved, a jack-o’-lantern will only be at its best for a few days, a week at most. Then, as the flesh dries, it will start to shrivel and crumple in on itself. If you want yours to look its best, carve no more than a week before Halloween (or whenever you want to display it).

Sugar

Sugar pumpkins are roughly the size of your head or a little smaller. They are grown to have the best flavor and consistency.

You can peel a raw pumpkin with a sturdy paring knife and cut the flesh into chunks to boil or steam, but I find the best way to prepare pumpkin for cooking is to roast it in halves.

Snap or cut off the stem and split a pumpkin vertically with a small sharp knife. Scoop out the seeds and strings. Save the seeds if you want to roast them. Lay the pumpkin halves cut side up in a shallow baking pan lined with foil or baking parchment. Roast at 400 F / 200 C for 30-45 minutes or until the flesh is soft and the halves no longer hold their shape. (You can also steam pumpkin by setting the halves cut side down in a baking dish with a little water in the bottom.) Let the pumpkin cool until safe to handle. The skin will peel easily away from the flesh, though you may need to cut around the split edges with the tip of a knife. Puree the flesh.

Roasting pumpkin seeds is easy. Separate the seeds from the strings, toss the seeds with a little vegetable oil and salt, spread them out in a pan, and roast them at 400 F / 200 C for about 15 minutes or until they are a nice golden brown. They make a good crunchy snack.

Once you have your roasted pumpkin, here are a couple of my favorite recipes for using it.

New England pumpkin pie

One pumpkin will yield about two pies with this recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 unbaked pie shell
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup / 1 dl brown sugar
  • 1 cup / 2 dl milk (soy and almond substitutes work fine)
  • 1 ½ cups / 3 ½ dl roasted pumpkin
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 475 F / 250 C.
  2. Prepare the pie shell.
  3. Beat the eggs lightly.
  4. Add the salt, brown sugar and milk and mix well.
  5. Add the pumpkin and spices and mix well.
  6. Pour the mixture into the pie shell.
  7. Bake at 475 F / 250 C for 15 minutes.
  8. Reduce heat to 325 F / 150 C and continue to bake for another 45 minutes or until the filling is well set.
  9. Let cool and serve with whipped cream, or serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Pumpkin apple beef stew

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • A pinch of salt
  • A pinch of pepper
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 pound / ½ kilo stew beef
  • 1 onion
  • 2 potatoes
  • 4 carrots
  • 2 large apples
  • Pureed flesh of one pumpkin
  • 2 cups / 5 dl beef stock
  • 1 cup / 2 dl dark beer

Directions

  1. Blend the flour, salt and pepper in a bowl.
  2. Cut the beef into cubes and roll them in the flour mixture.
  3. Melt the butter in the bottom of a large, heavy pot and brown the beef cubes.
  4. Roughly chop the onion. Peel and roughly chop the carrots and potatoes. Core, peel, and roughly chop the apples. Add them all to the pot.
  5. Add the pumpkin, stock, and beer to the pot.
  6. Let simmer over low heat for two hours or until the beef is soft and the root vegetables thoroughly cooked through.

Happy fall!

Images: Pumpkins, photography by Infrogmation via Wikimedia. Winking Halloween pumpkin inside – 2014-10-31, photograph by Tim Evans via Flickr. Pumpkin pie, photograph by distopiandreamgirl via Flickr.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

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How to Helsinki: Eating in Helsinki

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Erik here. Finnish food isn’t as familiar to most Americans as French or Italian food. Before meeting Eppu and visiting Finland, I couldn’t even have made a guess at what Finnish food is like. For those of you new to Finland, here’s a little taste of what you have to look forward to in Helsinki.

Sauteed reindeer with mashed potatoes, lingonberry, and pickle, photograph by Htm via Wikimedia

About Finnish food

Traditional Finnish food will feel familiar if you grew up in New England or the midwest: fish, beef and pork, many kinds of dairy products, potatoes, seasonal vegetables and berries, and grains (although grains like rye and barley are more common than in the US). Of course, what most Finns eat nowadays is not that different from what most westerners eat, but you’ll still see the influence of traditional foods in many places. There’s still lots of fresh fish and potatoes on Finnish tables and the dairy sections of Finnish grocery stores have an amazing array of products, some of which don’t even have names in English.

For many Finns, breakfast is an open-faced sandwich made of a slice of rye bread or a Karelian pie (see below) topped with cheese, cold cuts, tomato, and cucumbers. If your hotel offers breakfast, expect to see a table of sandwich makings. You’ll also probably find eggs in various forms, sausages and/or bacon, oatmeal porridge, yogurt, and berries. You’ll also find coffee. Finns take their coffee very seriously: Finland has one of the highest per-capita rates of coffee consumption in the world.

Lunch and dinner are much the same as in the U.S. It’s also common for Finns to take coffee breaks in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon. These are seen as treasured moments for relaxation and reflection. Working during a coffee break is a breach of social etiquette and it is rude to interrupt a Finn on their coffee break unless invited to join in. It is less common for Finnish cafés to serve coffee in to-go cups; you are expected to stay there and drink your coffee in peace, not carry it with you as you rush off to your next meeting.

Kebab with rice and salad photograph by Allan Reyes via Flickr

What is true of coffee is true of food in general: Finns see eating as an activity in itself, not something you do while working on something else or on your way somewhere. Even fast food is meant to be eaten sitting down, not on the go. The two most common kinds of fast food in Finland are pizza and kebab. Finnish pizza has a paper-thin crust and is served in whole, uncut pies, not as slices. Eat it with a fork and knife, not folded up in your hand. (But definitely have some—Finnish pizza is superb.) Kebab, which may not be so familiar to Americans (though it is similar to shawarma), is a Turkish import: thin strips of grilled spiced meat often served in a pita bread or on top of rice, with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, pickled hot peppers, and sauces. It’s also very well worth sampling, but it tends to make a bit of a mess. Several international fast food chains also have a presence in Finland, in case you feel the need for something familiar.

In general, Finnish tastes tend more sour and less sweet than Americans’. Sour berries like cranberries, lingonberries, currants, and gooseberries are widely grown and often eaten plain or only lightly sweetened. Finnish rye bread (ruisleipä) is a tangy sourdough bread without the molasses and caraway seeds that sweeten American rye breads. Finnish yogurts, juices, desserts, and other foods also tend to be less sweet than typical American versions of the same.

Many Finns are lactose-intolerant, have gluten sensitivities, and/or eat vegetarian or vegan. Food allergies are also very common. Most stores and restaurants offer a variety of alternatives suitable for people with these concerns. Look for “VL” / “vähälaktoosinen” for low lactose or “laktoositon” for lactose-free, “GL” or “gluteeniton” for gluten-free.

Public water fountains are rare in Finland. If you’re going to be out and about for a day, it’s a good idea to carry a water bottle with you.

Salmon soup, photograph by Tuijasal via Wikimedia

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5,000-Year-Old Beer Comes Alive

How would you like to make beer and get college credit for it? Students at Stanford got to do just that. Their final project for Professor Li Liu’s course Archaeology of Food: Production, Consumption and Ritual involved practical experiments with ancient brewing techniques and materials. The oldest “recipe” they tried is 5,000 years old:

“Liu, together with doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang and a group of other experts, discovered the 5,000-year-old beer recipe by studying the residue on the inner walls of pottery vessels found in an excavated site in northeast China. The research, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provided the earliest evidence of beer production in China so far.”

The materials for the ancient Chinese beer contained millet, barley, Job’s tears (Chinese pearl barley), and traces of yam and lily root parts. The students tried other combinations as well. Watch a short video explaining the experiments:

Stanford students recreate 5,000-year-old Chinese beer recipe by Stanford

Professor Liu’s research also shows it’s possible that barley (a very popular beer grain even today) may have been introduced to China from western Asia hundreds of years before previously thought and specifically for brewing instead of a food crop.

Fascinating! It shows that as long as we have records—or material remnants, not just written word—there have been people interested in the minutiae of food and food production. I for one am grateful to be able to enjoy the fruits of such a long history of delicious experiments.

This post has been edited.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making A Proper 1420

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s A Proper 1420.

The menu

  • Boiled chicken dinner
  • Poppy seed-cakes

erikchef1There’s few ways of cooking more traditional than boiling. You can put vegetables and meat all in one big pot and boil until cooked through. Everything comes out piping hot and full of flavor. It’s simple and satisfying.

Dinner12

Our dinner this month is based on an old staple of New England cookery, the boiled dinner of corned beef or ham and root vegetables. I’ve substituted chicken for the meat and used what seemed like suitably Hobbitish vegetables: onions, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.

We can be certain that Hobbits have chickens, since there’s no end of eggs in Bilbo’s kitchen. (H1) Pippin also complains about Gandalf guarding the palantir “like a hen on an egg.” (3.11) Potatoes, carrots, and onions are all on Sam’s wish list for a good stew (4.4) and the Gaffer scolds his son for dreaming of elves and dragons instead of cabbages and potatoes. (1.1) These ingredients all seem pretty solidly attested.

“Seed-cake” can mean any of a variety of cakes flavored with seeds, but I picked an old poppy seed-cake recipe that sounded like something Bilbo would enjoy. (H1) Poppies have long been cultivated in western Europe and elsewhere for their seeds and oil; they seem like they would be at home in the Shire.

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Dining in Middle Earth: A Proper 1420

“Altogether 1420 in the Shire was a marvellous year. […] In the Southfarthing the vines were laden, and the yield of ‘leaf’ was astonishing; and everywhere there was so much corn that at Harvest every barn was stuffed. The Northfarthing barley was so fine that the beer of 1420 malt was long remembered and became a byword. Indeed a generation later one might hear an old gaffer at an inn, after a good pint of well-earned ale, put down his mug with a sigh: ‘Ah! That was a proper fourteen-twenty, that was!’”

LotR Dinner12

We come back, at last, to the Shire, to end our year of dining in Middle Earth with a humble Hobbit dinner such as Frodo and his friends might have enjoyed after returning home from their adventures. A boiled chicken dinner makes a warm, homey meal for cold winter nights, and of course there’s beer to go with it. For dessert we have seed-cakes, an old favorite of Bilbo’s.

LotR Dinner12 Main

The table setting is sunny and cheerful, decorated with the Hobbits’ favorite colors. An unbleached linen table runner with green and yellow stripes sits over a dark green tablecloth. Green also comes on the napkins and plant pot with an ivy motif. The dinner is served on one large, hefty platter. A cloth-lined bread basket holds the small dessert seed-cakes. Fancy water glasses add another pop of greenish hues to the table.

LotR Dinner12 Dessert

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Ancient Nubian Antibiotic Beer

161128shabtiNo, that’s not not the name of my new band. It’s the answer to a mystery in the bones of ancient Nubians.

You see, strains of bacteria that live in the soil of Nubia—the middle region of the Nile, south of Egypt—naturally produce tetracycline, an antibiotic that the bacteria use to kill off competing bacteria. During the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the people of Nubia stored their grain underground and some of it got contaminated. The result was that the things they then made with that grain, like bread and beer, contained tetracycline. Eating and drinking these products gave the Nubians a dose of antibiotics, which probably helped them resist diseases and infections.

The traces of these antibiotics turned up in the bones of Nubian mummies. We don’t know to what extent the ancient Nubians were aware of the effect their beer was having on them. No one in the ancient world had the medical knowledge to understand antibiotics, but even without understanding causes, people can be very observant of effects. They may well have known that their beer helped keep them healthy, even if they didn’t know why.

Beer. It’s good for you.

Image: Ancient Egyptian shabti statuette of a woman making beer, photograph by yov dothan via Wikimedia (Currently Israel Museum, Jerusalem; c. 2000 BCE; painted wood)

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making The Return of the King

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s The Return of the King.

Dinner11

The menu

  • Saffron seafood soup
  • Roasted pork with olives and dates
  • Sauteed spinach
  • Almond pastries

erikchef1Since we really only see Gondor in a time of war and Tolkien gives us very little detail about what daily life was like after the defeat of Sauron, it takes some imagination to come up with a proper meal for such an occasion. In creating this month’s menu, I had a specific idea in mind: a feast that would represent all the people of Gondor. Aragorn’s coronation meant a new beginning for a kingdom that had been in a long decline. It touched all of Gondor’s people and it made sense that they would all contribute something to the table.

From the fishing folk of Ethir Anduin, we get a seafood soup. This recipe uses a variety of different seafoods combined with carrots and onions. It is, at heart, food for a hardworking family making a living from the sea and small coastal gardens, but the addition of cream and saffron makes it richer, sweeter, and more luxuriant. (5.1)

From the small farmers and herders of the hill country, we have a haunch of roast pork. To reflect the southern climes of Gondor, the pork is stuffed with herbs, olives and dates. This, too, is simple food, but presented in royal style.

From the fields and gardens of Pelennor, we get sauteed spinach, flavored with garlic and ginger. This recipe is inspired by a medieval dish from the middle east which seems appropriate for the Mediterranean-ish setting of Gondor.

Finally, from the sophisticated city-dwellers of Minas Tirith itself, we end with an artful set of almond pastries representing the white tree and seven stars of Gondor.

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Dining in Middle Earth: The Return of the King

“Frodo gave way; and Gandalf, as if he were their esquire, knelt and girt the sword-belts about them, and then rising he circlets of silver upon their heads. And when they were arrayed they went to the great feast; and they sat at the King’s table with Gandalf, and King Eomer of Rohan […]”

LotR Dinner11

This month, we try to imagine a celebratory feast in Minas Tirith for the coronation of Aragorn. The people of Gondor had lived through war and privation, but they would surely have laid on the best they could for their new king and the return of peace. Our feast includes saffron seafood soup, roasted pork with olives and dates, sauteed spinach, and almond pastries for dessert.

LotR Dinner11 Main

Our table setting is based on a contrast of primarily white dishware and the dark tabletop. Most of the color comes from the food. The shapes of the dishware are simple, with no patterns or surface decorations. Silver cutlery, silvery candlesticks, and a white, shimmery table runner introduce a touch of luxury. A pewter cup holds mint sprigs for additional color and flavoring.

LotR Dinner11 Dessert

LotR Dinner11 Drink

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Making Flotsam and Jetsam

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s Flotsam and Jetsam.

The menu

  • Roasted ham
  • Sliced apples
  • Toast
  • Honey
  • Wine

erikchef1Merry describes the available food pretty clearly and we have stayed close to it. (3.9) The only substitution we have made is ham for salted pork. The two meats are similar, but salt pork is fattier and closer to (what Americans call) bacon. Ham is meatier and more satisfying for a meal. We added fresh sliced apples to go with the ham, reasoning that if Minas Tirith has apples in storage, Isengard’s storerooms probably had the same. (5.1) Our toast was made with bakery bread a few days old, like the Isengard bread that was “three or four days old.” (3.9)

Dinner10 w Props2

Recipes

Roasted ham with apple slices

Our ham was a small portion from a local farm and was not pre-cooked. Roasting times will depend on the size of your ham, so use a thermometer to make sure that the meat reaches a temperature of 160 F / 70 C.

Ingredients

  • Small, uncooked ham
  • 2 firm apples

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 F / 160 C.
  2. Wash and trim the ham.
  3. Lay the ham in a roasting pan with a meat thermometer stuck into the thickest portion.
  4. Roast until the temperature reaches 160 F / 70 C. Small hams may take only an hour; larger hams may require up to three hours.
  5. Core and slice the apples thin. Serve as garnish to thick slices of ham.

Dinner10 Ham Apple

 

Setting

eppucamera1 Unlike Peter Jackson’s movie, Tolkien’s version of the Isengard sequence actually includes a meal shared between the two Hobbits and Aragorn et al. It takes place indoors in a guard-house hewn out of stone. Other than the presence of “a hearth and chimney,” “a long table,” and “dishes, bowls, cups, knives and food of various sorts,” we hear few details. (3.9)

Dinner10 Toast

Finding a location for our photoshoot was a bit of a problem. You may have noticed that after the first four dinners, we’ve moved away from our initial spot; the desk we used was too narrow and too close to the wall for a good variety of setups. Since then I’ve tried several different areas of the house and even outdoors, but haven’t landed on a single place that has everything I want. Anyway. 🙂

We don’t have access to a stone structure that sounds suitably like Saruman’s guardroom. We do, however, have a room with wooden walls and a built-in bench that could stand in for a table: our sauna. We decided it was non-typical enough of an indoor space for our purposes. In the end, I decided to add two old table leaves on top of the built-in bench because I quite liked their worn surface for this purpose.

The setting in the ruins of Isengard sounds quite bare, but not ascetic. I chose therefore not to have a tablecloth, but added a simple unbleached linen napkin. In addition, I selected simple ceramic and wood dishes like the oval plate and the turned wooden tumbler. There’s a plain wooden knife for spreading butter and honey on toast, and an iron eating stick for spearing the ham and apple. On the side, one of our sushi sauce bowls masquerades as a honey dish.

LotR Dinner10

Finally, purely for mood purposes, there is a stack of extra plates in one corner and two candlesticks in the other. I used candle stubs, for Saruman doesn’t strike me as the kind of leader who makes sure their underlings have sufficient supplies handy at all times.

If I were to do this dinner setup again, I don’t think I’d have large changes to make. (Unless I could find a fancy stone room like Tolkien’s text describes.) Perhaps I’d consider adding a butter dish, but that’s about it.

Check out the introduction for more!

Images by Eppu and Erik Jensen

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Dining in Middle Earth: Flotsam and Jetsam

“’I will make you some toast. The bread is three or four days old, I am afraid.’

“Aragorn and his companions sat themselves down at one end of a long table, and the hobbits disappeared through one of the inner doors. […]

“’And you need not turn up your nose at the provender, Master Gimli,’ said Merry. ‘This is not orc-stuff, but man-food, as Treebeard calls it. Will you have wine or beer? There’s a barrel inside there – very passable. And this is first-rate salted pork. Or I can cut you some rashers of bacon and broil them, if you like. I am sorry there is no green stuff: the deliveries have been rather interrupted in the last few days! I cannot offer you anything to follow but butter and honey for your bread. Are you content?’”

 

LotR Dinner10

The Hobbits and their friends make a decent meal out of the remains of Saruman’s stocks after the destruction of Isengard. This month, we dine along with them on roasted ham with sliced apples, bread with honey, and a cup of wine.

LotR Dinner10 Plate

A simple oval plate and a turned wooden tumbler are set on a worn wood surface (old table leaves). There’s a plain wooden knife for spreading butter and honey on toast, and an iron eating stick for spearing the ham and apple. On the side, one of our sushi sauce bowls masquerades as a honey dish. A stack of extra plates in one corner and two candlesticks with candle stubs in the other help with the mood.

LotR Dinner10 w Props

Check out what’s it about in the introduction, or read the how-to!

Images by Eppu Jensen
Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!