I love Autumn. The smell of fallen leaves and the noise they make as you kick through them, morning mists and the changing colours and, best of all, Halloween.
Many of the old Pagan traditions have persisted, and today they give us a great excuse to get creative with pumpkins and, of course, to enjoy the fantastic food we can make with them.
My appreciation for this wonderful fruit may have something to do with how easy it is to carve compared to the ‘neeps’ we used to make our lanterns with when I was a child going ‘guising’ at Halloween in Scotland (it also smells miles better!).
Carving your pumpkin
I have been carving pumpkins for years, gradually trying more and more complicated designs. I quickly realised that having the correct tools makes this much easier, and avoids the lacerations you tend to get if you use a kitchen knife.
The UK has started to introduce some of my favourite tools in its shops, but the best one is the humble bayonet drawing pin. You use this to prick out a design on the pumpkin (I usually use a pattern, because I’m more a copier than a creative type).
Of the official tools, the most useful one is a fine-toothed pumpkin saw – which makes it really easy to carve intricate and accurate holes into the pumpkin. It’s blunt, so it won’t take off a yard of skin if it slips, but it’s used like a saw, with a fast in-and-out motion. Some people find this hard to take on board as they are used to slicing rather than sawing, but most find that it’s quite easy to use.
For a more detailed effect, it’s nice to peel the pumpkin skin off, and some of the designs you can use are really delicate.
Ideal tools for peeling are lino cutters or small wood carving chisels.
You can use scalpels, but they are a recipe for a quick trip to A&E for stitches.
Five steps to your perfect pumpkin
- Cut off the top of the pumpkin with a pumpkin saw used almost horizontally to make a nice thick rim for the lid to sit on. Cut a notch into the rim so you know which way it fits. Also cut a hole above where your candle will sit if you’re not lighting it with a torch.
Remove seeds (save to roast with soya sauce – yum!)
- Scrape out enough flesh to leave around 1.5cm /0.5inch thickness of pumpkin flesh. I find a metal serving spoon is the best tool for this. Use a torch inside to spot any thicker bits, as you want it to be thin enough to glow when lit.
- Choose a pattern that’s the right size for your pumpkin – make it bigger or smaller on a photocopier if needed.
- Pin the pattern to the pumpkin and prick along the lines making sure you put in plenty of holes so the lines are clear when you remove the pattern. If the holes don’t show well, rub a little flour or cinnamon into them to make them show up.
- When carving a pattern, do fine bits and the middle of a design first so you don’t accidentally knock out elements of the design. Also don’t be afraid to cut out large pieces from the design in several parts.
Eating your pumpkin
So, what about the delicious pumpkin-based food I promised?
Initially I was a sinner, scraping out the pumpkin flesh and throwing it away, like most of the UK population, but a friend in the States helped me see the error of my ways. She sent me a cookbook that we now call ‘The Pumpkin Bible’ – giving recipes for savoury and sweet dishes, soups, curries, custards and lots of different pumpkin pies.
My favourite is Pumpkin Risotto…
(feeds 4-6 depending on how hungry they are)
- 1 medium onion chopped finely
- 1 pint jug packed with pumpkin scrapings or pumpkin chopped into cm square dice
- 1/2 oz (15g) butter or olive oil
- 1/2 pint (1/4 litre) volume of basmati or risotto rice
- 1 pint (1/2 litre) of vegetable stock
- Handful of fresh sage (around 10 leaves), finely chopped
- Mature or vintage cheddar grated, to taste
Cook the onion in the butter until it goes see-through. Add the pumpkin and cook for about 5 minutes until the pumpkin starts to soften a little. Break up any large bits of pumpkin as you do this.
Add the rice and mix, then the vegetable stock. Bring to the boil, and boil for 1-2 minutes, then take it off the heat, wrap it in a towel or two and leave it for 15 minutes. It should be perfectly cooked and still hot, and you will have saved 8 minutes of energy.
Now stir in the finely chopped sage and then some really good mature cheddar. Feel free to add plenty of both – we probably add about 2oz / 50g of cheese per person.