Growing up, Sunday dinner was almost always held at Nonna Sarina and Nonno Eugenio’s. And Sunday dinner almost always consisted of a roast veal or lamb, with some crisp potatoes and pumpkin to accompany the meat. There was also a big salad, often made with greens from their suburban, backyard garden; some roasted capsicums, which were marinated in oil and garlic; and plenty of Nonna’s sourdough bread to mop up the fleshy sweet peppers and the flavourful oil enveloping them.
Almost every week, I looked forward to dinner with Nonna and Nonno. I loved everything they made come Sunday evening. Except for the pumpkin. My family, of southern Italian extraction, rarely cooked with the orange-fleshed cucurbita, with the exception of those evenings we ate together. Its sweetness, an attribute that seemed perfectly fine for fruit and desserts, left me baffled. ‘Vegetables aren’t supposed to be sweet’, I often thought to myself, as I took a few small bitefuls to please Nonna. My brother, also held similar opinions on this gastronomic matter, and we made no secret that we preferred the less complex, savoury notes of the potatoes Nonna had roasted alongside them instead.
I had a change of heart, eventually. And that came ten years ago, while living for three months in Reggio Emilia, a town in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. I arrived there with little more than a suitcase and an Italian passport at the beginning of autumn. It wasn’t long before pumpkins and squashes were everywhere. At the sagre or festivals that were being held in the town and other villages in the surrounding provincia. In the locals’ minestre, zuppe and risottos. In their knuckle-like dumplings or gnocchi. And perhaps my favourite of all, in the town’s signature ravioli-shaped stuffed pasta or tortelli di zucca. Vegetables could be sweet after all. And, they were even better when contrasted with generous gratings or chunks of the locally-produced, umami-packed Parmigiano Reggiano.
After moving to Turin, came the obligatory Halloween project I’d have to put on annually as part of my job of teaching English to children. Despite never having celebrated the occasion myself back home in Australia, every late October, I’d find myself having to dress up as a witch, learning how to carve myriad faces onto jack-o-lanterns and making all sorts of pumpkin-based treats – savoury and sweet – for and with my students. I was destined, in short, to learn my butternut squash (‘great for soup, terrible for gnocchi’) from my mantovana (‘the best for gnocchi, good for cakes’) in Corso Brunelleschi every autumn.
This year, there’s no Halloween project for me to prepare for. I still have pumpkins on my mind though. Partly because, like in Reggio Emilia ten years ago, they are everywhere right now. Partly because I’ve become really quite fond of them. Partly because a stunning new cookbook (feel free to scroll down this page should you wish to find out how to win a copy!) has made me appreciate their place in northern Italian cuisine once again.
I’ve longed admired Venetian-born Valeria Necchio’s blog, Life Love Food. A graduate of Pollenzo’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, Valeria has a deep knowledge of Italian food and traditions. She also writes and photographs beautifully and I’m always very happy whenever I get an email notification about a new, and almost invariably, seasonal recipe on her blog. So, last year, I was very excited when she announced she was working on a cookbook inspired by the food of her home region, the Veneto, which is located in Italy’s northeast.
Like Emilia-Romagna, Veneto is a region where the locals have come up with a wide variety of ways of cooking pumpkins since their introduction from the Americas several centuries ago. It is also home to two highly-prized varieties of pumpkins, such as the Santa bellunese and the wonderfully warty, dry-fleshed Marina di Chioggia. Not surprisingly, Valeria’s Veneto: Recipes from a Country Italian Kitchen features several recipes where this grandstanding vegetable is the star. So far, I’ve tried my hand at making her zucca in saor or fried marinated pumpkin with onions, pine nuts and sultanas. I’ve also got my eye on her risi e suca (rice and pumpkin soup) for a cozy, cold night in at home with the family. I’m hoping TP, who is not a pumpkin fan, will be won over by the crumbled (and salty) salame or sausage Valeria’s mother often used to balance the sweet inclinations of her Nonna‘s home-grown gourds. Something similar, in Emilia-Romagna over 10 years ago, happened to me, after all.
Zucca in saor
Truth be told, I initially made this because I couldn’t get my hands on decent sardines to make Valeria’s interpretation of one of Venice’s signature dishes, sarde in saor. It turned out to be a wonderfully refreshing, vegetarian alternative to that iconic antipasto with the perfect balance of sweetness and astringency. Both dishes, at any rate, date from the medieval practice of marinating fried foods – mainly fish, but also meat and vegetables – in vinegar and spices to extend their shelf life. Other modern-day dishes such as the Spanish escabeche, southern Italian scapece and Piedmontese carpione appear to date from similar ancient preservation practices.
Ingredients (serves 4 – 6 as an antipasto)
- 1kg dry-fleshed pumpkin, peeled and deseeded
- Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
- 30mL extra virgin olive oil
- 500 g white onions, thinly sliced
- 60 mL dry white wine
- 120 mL white wine vinegar
- 40 g sultanas, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes
- 40 g pine nuts, toasted
- salt and pepper, to taste
Slice the pumpkin very finely – about 5mm thick. Remove any remaining bits of rind or stringy core with a pairing knife. Set aside.
Fill two-thirds of a medium sized, high-sided frying pan with vegetable oil. Place it over medium-high heat and wait until it reaches a temperature of 180 º C (if you don’t have a thermometre handy, you can use these methods to test if the oil is ready). Slip in the first batch of pumpkin slices, trying not to crowd them. Fry for 2-3 minutes on each side, or until their edges are crisp. Remove and drain with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate lined with absorbent paper towels. Continue frying until you’ve finished all the slices. Sprinkle with a little salt and set aside.
To make the marinade (saor), heat the olive oil in a separate frying pan. Add the sliced onions and fry gently over a medium-low heat until they appear soft and translucent, stirring often. Pour in the wine and the vinegar and season with salt and pepper. Increase the heat to medium-high and let the liquid evaporate for a couple of minutes.
In a glass container, arrange a layer of pumpkin slices. Cover with a layer of white onions and sprinkle a few drained sultanas and pine nuts on top. Continue to form layers until you have finished all the ingredients. Pour over any remaining cooking liquid, which will act as a marinade. Leave to cool to room temperature, cover and place in the refrigerator to marinate for at least 24 hours, or up to two days. Serve at room temperature.
Pellegrino Artusi’s Flourless Pumpkin and Almond Cake
It’s not in Valeria’s cookbook, but ever since she posted about this cake, adapted from Pellegrino Artusi‘s recipe in Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, it’s become my go-to pumpkin cake every autumn. I used to make it with butternut squash, but now I prefer the texture when using a drier-fleshed pumpkin. For best results, be sure to drain the pureed flesh thoroughly, whatever pumpkin you end up using. As for serving, I love it as part of an Italian-style breakfast, accompanied by a warm mug of caffé latte. Also works well as a treat for afternoon tea.
Ingredients (for a 24cm cake tin)
- 1 kilo butternut squash or pumpkin
- 3 eggs
- 100 g sugar
- 100 g finely ground almonds or almond meal
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- butter, for greasing baking dish
- flour, for dusting baking dish
- icing sugar, for serving (optional)
Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Cut squash/pumpkin in half and remove seeds from centre. Cut pumpkin into large pieces, place on baking tray and roast in oven until tender (45 minutes to 1 hour). Scrape the roasted pulp off the skin and pass in batches through a food mill. Transfer puree to a sieve lined with tightly woven cheesecloth and drain until all excess liquid has been removed and the resulting puree weighs 300 grams.
Beat eggs with sugar until the latter dissolves. Add the almond meal, nutmeg and salt and mix until well combined. Stir in the cooled squash/pumpkin puree and transfer batter to greased and dusted baking dish. Smooth surface.
Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until set, golden on top and with sides that have shrunken away slightly from the edges of your baking dish. Leave to cool and, if desired, serve with icing sugar dusted on top.
Veneto: Recipes from an Italian Country Kitchen giveaway
To win a copy of Valeria Necchio’s stunning new cookbook, simply head to this post on Instagram (or this post on Facebook). To enter, 1) ‘follow’ (or in the case of Facebook, ‘like’) @turinmamma if you don’t already; 2) leave a comment about your favourite way to eat or cook pumpkins; 3) tag a friend. The giveaway is open to worldwide entries and closes on Saturday 28th October at 11:59pm (GMT +1). The winner, picked at random among all valid entries, will be announced on Instagram (and Facebook), on Tuesday 31st October. Vi auguro in bocca al lupo! /Wishing you all the best of luck!
In the meantime, here are a couple of links to some other recipes I’ve written about, inspired by Valeria’s cookbook, that you may wish to try your hand at: