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.

Advertisements

Quotes: The Brain Requires a Constant Flow of Oxygen. Or Tea

“The brain requires a constant flow of oxygen. Or tea.”

– Dr. Ogden in Murdoch Mysteries s. 3 ep. 10, “The Curse of Beaton Manor” (written by Paul Aitken)

That certainly was my mood this morning. Still not quite sure I’m awake a few hours afterwards…!

Introverted Tea Mug

Image by Eppu Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Eating

Whether it’s lembas bread and stewed rabbit or a nice fresh pan-galactic gargle blaster, the things that characters eat and drink can be a useful way of establishing the feel of an unfamiliar world. But how your characters eat and how their food is prepared and served can contribute just as much to your worldbuilding as what they eat. Here are a few things to think about when creating food systems for fantasy worlds.

Wet carbs or dry carbs?

Traditional cuisines in most of the world are based on carbohydrates, but those carbs can come in many different forms. If they’re dry—flatbread, raised breads, tortillas, biscuits, etc.—then people are likely to eat them by hand and may well use them to pick up and hold other dishes like stews and sauces. If they’re wet—porridge, cooked rice, pasta, etc.—people are more likely to use implements like spoons and chopsticks to hold them.

Eating by hand or eating with implements?

While this can be to some extent determined by the nature of the food, many foods can be eaten either by hand or with implements. Implement-eating cultures tend to develop specialized implements for particular foods or kinds of eating; whether or not people have access to or know how to use the correct implements for the right food can be a marker of social status. On the other hand, hand-eating cultures can have just as complicated rules about how to eat. Forget the renfaire stereotypes about grabbing a turkey leg and tearing into it; societies that eat by hand tend to have strict rules governing when and how often you wash your hands, which hand you use to eat with, even which fingers and which individual finger joints should be used for which foods.

Large pieces or small pieces?

Some cuisines, such as most traditional European cookery, tend to cook meats and vegetables in large pieces which individual diners cut up for themselves. Others, such as traditional cuisines across much of south and east Asia, tend to cut meats and vegetable into smaller pieces in the kitchen which are served up to be consumed as they are.

Communal dishes or individual servings?

Sometimes food is served in communal dishes from which everyone takes what they like; other times, everyone gets their own individual serving. Both ways of serving are wrapped up with social etiquette. With communal dishes, there are usually rules about how people serve themselves, in what order, and how much at a time. With individual dishes, there may be rules about whether everyone gets the same things or the same amount.

In any culture, you are also likely to find variations on these possibilities. People of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds within the same society may well follow different eating customs. The same people may also eat differently under different circumstances: a quiet family dinner at home probably has different social rules than a public banquet for a festival day. Drawing out these complexities is also a part of worldbuilding.

Food is important. People often get emotionally invested not just in what they eat but in how they eat it. Many of the customs and norms that societies develop for how food is eaten and served have their roots in protecting hygiene and managing social hierarchies, two very important issues for personal well-being. Even today, when modern food safety practices and the weakening of traditional social hierarchies has made these issues less urgent, people can still have deep emotional reactions to perceived transgressions as trivial as folding a slice of pizza or eating a hamburger with fork and knife.

Imagine how important customs of cooking, serving, and eating food could be in a world in which your character’s standing in society may depend on knowing which finger to use to dip into the shared sauce bowl.

Image: Preparing butter, image from Shiwunbencao (ink on paper, Ming period)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Why I Won’t Be Eating Porgs– I Mean Puffins

A news and culture writer Andrew Husband writes in “Porg Recipes For The ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Fans In Your Life” on Uproxx that us Nordics eat puffins:

“[…] we’ve put together a short recipe list — consisting of hors-d’oeuvre, entrées, and entremets based on traditional puffin and poultry dishes — for your perusal.

“Yes, you read that right. Despite being protected by several national and international conservation organizations, puffins are considered a rare delicacy in Nordic countries. And seeing as how The Last Jedi‘s porgs are based on the puffins writer/director Rian Johnson saw while filming at Skellig, it makes sense their preparation would be similar.”

As a source for his wild claim, Husband offers all of one link, and that goes to a CNN Travel article Iceland food can be unusual; check out these 10 dishes”.

Here’s my official response as a Nordic person:

Yeah… nope. Nopety-nope-nope-nope. So much NOPE!

While Iceland is unquestionably one of the Nordic countries, it’s ludicrous to claim that the existence of a practice in one country (or even two) equals its existence in all five.

Now, had Husband talked for instance of reindeer, he would be more correct, but still not entirely so. The Sami herd reindeer in the north of Finland, Sweden, and Norway, so we three nations tend to eat reindeer meat. In fact, sauteed reindeer or poronkäristys was one of the regular dishes at my elementary school cafeteria in Northern Finland, so I personally couldn’t call it a delicacy even though I’ve eaten it less often since. In Denmark and in Iceland it’s an import, and apparently they hardly eat reindeer at all (or so the all-knowing Internet tells me).

But puffin? I’ve never even heard of eating puffin before, although it sounds like the practice does have long roots in Iceland and Norway (judging e.g. by the existence of lundehunder or puffin dogs in the latter) and some other areas like the Faroes. And now that I know Atlantic puffins are considered vulnerable, I wouldn’t eat them even if I happened to be in a country where hunting them wasn’t banned. Not even if you paid me.

“Porg Recipes” arcticle found via File 770.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

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

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading