TIPS AND TRICKS FROM THE FRENCH PUMPKIN PATCH
Why is it when someone utters the words, French cooking, we feel a shudder of panic? Do the French know how to cook? Yes, most of them. At least, most French people have a repertoire of recipes that they cook really well. But not every French home cook delves into haute pâtisserie, there are experts for that. The French Cookbook (we’re talking in broad strokes here, not about the Larousse Gastronomique) is mostly made up of very accessible, homecooked dishes, but what the French never compromise on is quality and flavour, which is why we enjoy eating our way through France so much. Seen in this light, the humble pumpkin might have seemed a little too rustic for the fussy French, but it’s the essence of country cuisine, and full of potential.
There’s something quirky about the word, potiron. Even when you don’t understand one word of French, you’ll pick this one out of a sentence… potty-ron… and although it might have nothing to do with an iron pot, there’s nothing stopping you from hollowing a pumpkin out and using it as a pot (stuffed pumpkin anyone?).
The most popular pumpkin in the French pumpkin patch is the Potimarron, a portmanteau word (two words in one) for potiron (pumpkin) and marron (chestnut). Cute! It gets its name from its sweet, chestnut notes, and is so delicious that it is used in both sweet and savoury dishes. If only we had them in South Africa… oh wait, we do! Over here, they’re called Hokkaido pumpkins, presumably because we got the seeds from Japan, but it’s exactly the same variety, and pops up everywhere we grow pumpkins during the autumn and early winter months. And when stored in a cool, dry place, they can last up to six months.
If you can’t find a Hokkaido pumpkin anywhere, another squash we never seem to run out of in South Africa is butternut, which is also deliciously sweet, and smoother (less fibrous) than most other pumpkins. Its sugar content is also naturally higher, which means that you can add less sugar to sweet dishes, although it adds a delectable dimension to savoury dishes as well.
Back to the potiron, the three pumpkin recipes that come up again and again in French cooking are pumpkin soup, pumpkin gratin and pumpkin jam, but in each case, a slight twist could take your pumpkin recipe from yum to wow!
Potage au potiron / Crème d’or
In France, soups are usually served as the first course, but they can easily transform into the main meal with a slight tweak, say, with the addition of pork. The French also take serving size rather seriously, so when entertaining a friend or extended family from the land of Gaul, aim for somewhere between one and two cups per serving.
A classic French pumpkin soup is made by boiling 1 ½ kg of pumpkin in 1 ½ litres of water, letting it simmer for 30 minutes, and then blending it until smooth. Then, pour the blended pumpkin back into a saucepan on medium heat and stir in 1 litre of milk, season with salt and pepper and let it simmer for 5 minutes. To serve, put some croutons and about 30 ml butter in the bottom of your serving bowl and pour the soup over it. Serve immediately.
Potiron en gratin
Who doesn’t like a potato gratin? It’s the essence of pub grub. Now imagine it with the added sweet nuttiness of pumpkin. So good, and so layered with flavour. To cook the pumpkin, skin and seed about 500 g (roast the pips for a salad topping) before boiling the pumpkin in salty water for about 20 minutes until tender. At the same time, boil about 250 g of potatoes in salty water and preheat the oven to 220 ºC. After draining the pumpkin and potatoes, mash them together with 50 ml butter, salt and pepper. Spread the mash to cover an oven-proof dish, layer with Gruyére-style cheese and bake for about 20 minutes until the cheese turns brown. Your braai will never be the same again.
PUMPKIN AND DRIED APRICOT JAM
Confiture d’abricots secs et de potiron
Technically, the apricot is the prima donna in this recipe, but this story is about pumpkin. Although unusual, pumpkin preserve is not unheard of in traditional South African cooking and can often be found at padstalle and tuisnywerhede across the country. The thing with pumpkin is that it’s very low in acid, and so also low in pectin, which means you have to supplement it with lemon juice to help it set and keep it preserved.
The French solution is not to rely on citrus for that acidic boost, but dried apricots. After soaking 1 kg of dried apricots cut into strips in 2 litres water for 24 hours, drain but keep the water. Then, bring it to a boil in a large saucepan and add 3 kg of pumpkin, letting it boil for about half an hour. Strain the pumpkin into a smooth paste, then return it to the saucepan with 3 kg sugar and keep stirring over a low heat for 30 minutes. Then, add the soaked apricots and cook for an additional 30 minutes. While still hot, decant into sterilised jars, seal and let it cool before storing.
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