Pumpkin love

Pumpkin love

It's a week past Halloween but still there are pumpkins.  Who buys them?  Does anyone actually cook with them?

If you want to take advantage of .25/lb. produce, I have a story for you.

Oh, and a recipe.

This is our last photo because this story is old and has no pictures.  Someone has them, just not me.

When I was a little girl in Arizona, before Halloween we would go to a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins off the vine, four kids and their dad.  I loved this.  When I was little I wanted to be "a farmer's wife," and this struck me as gloriously close to my ideal.  We would bring four pumpkins home.

Then we went with our five cousins and brought nine pumpkins home.  The older kids were clever and competitive and wanted the carving to be judged as a contest, and a party was born, the stuff of legend and lore of my childhood.  Late October in Phoenix is beautiful, only the slightest autumn chill in the air if you use your imagination, with clear blue skies, so our party was always outdoors in our big backyard.

We needed room.  Because as was the case with my family, whomever else happened to be standing around got dragged into the action, in fairly large numbers.  Hence more pumpkins came to be required.

Now it made no sense for everyone to go picking them.  So my father brought me and my favorite close cousin to the pumpkin patch, and we bore the responsibility of choosing appropriate pumpkins for everyone.  I myself always wanted the small, perfectly round pumpkin but I had to take everyone's preferences into consideration: we needed warty ones, scarred ones, lumpy ones; a fair sprinkling of morbidly large ones, squat ones, attenuated ones.  People were getting very clever indeed at their carving, and more choosy.

Somewhere along the line the pile of close to 20 pumpkins began to cause disharmony.  Two carvers invariably wanted the same pumpkin.  Allegations of unfairness were flung.  But this was a party, was fun; no one wanted allegations discoloring the proceedings.

So another layer of process was added.  Bobbing for apples now preceded the choosing of the pumpkins.  But this was not a game.  The apples were numbered, and your number determined your place in line to approach the pumpkin array.  The allegations disappeared; the fates were now intoned in gratitude or blame.

By now there were  20 and more carvers.  Clever children had become formidable opponents.  A giant jail pumpkin housed several tiny-pumpkin criminals, leering brightly from behind bars.  Cut circles were filled in with the tops of lollipops to make stained-glass eyes.  Pumpkin seeds were stuck in a jagged mouth at jagged angles to make creepy yellowing teeth.  Carrot noses, radish warts, a knife sticking out of a pumpkin head.  A totem pole of pumpkin faces, largest on the bottom to tiny up on top.  Two judging sessions assessed the pumpkins in daylight and after dark, illuminated.

If you were good enough you could walk away with quite a tidy bundle of cash.  Cash was always the prize in our contests.  The grown-ups cheerfully doled out fives, tens, and twenties for the winning creations, vast riches for a kid in the seventies, but usually it didn't come to me.  I always wanted to take my small, perfectly round pumpkin and carve a long, thin smile and two small round eyes with an apple corer, and though this made a freakishly happy pumpkin face, it was never prize-worthy.  I didn't mind.  I was aware that I was surrounded by masters of the form.

Indoors, apart from the outdoor pumpkin mayhem, another master was at work, my mom.  She had to fix the food to feed this mob.  Part of the meal was potluck, or rather, the same dishes brought by the same friends each year.  But the main dish was Aztec Pumpkin Soup, a recipe from the eternally wonderful Sunset magazine.  We ate it in mugs after the judging and before the awards ceremony.  It was lovely, warming, always the same.  The soup of legend and lore to go with the contest of legend and lore.

I can't imagine how much chopping my mom had to do to get enough peeled, cubed pumpkin.  That's the only terrible part about this recipe--you actually have to cut up a pumpkin.  Somehow it is so much harder to cube pumpkin than it is to carve one, and you don't even get a glowing smiley face at the end to reward your labors.  It takes more time than you think, a good knife, and a strong will.  But if you can manage that, the rest is pretty basic, a lovely simple chicken soup with a lot of fresh or toasted or melty things to throw on top.  Luckily in your case you won't need to make enough to feed 40.  But you might want to invite a couple of friends over to help you finish off the pot nevertheless.  They may reward you with glowing smiley faces.

Aztec Pumpkin Soup

3 lb. broiler-fryer chicken, whole or in parts
3/4 c. walnut halves or pieces
3 T butter or margarine
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 quarts chicken stock
4 c pumpkin, peeled and diced--about a 1/2" to 3/4" dice
1 bag frozen corn
grated Monterey Jack cheese
avocados, diced
fried tortilla strips or Fritos
sunflower seeds

Simmer a 3 lb. broiler-fryer chicken in 3 1/2 quarts of water until done, about 45 minutes.  Cool chicken and strip meat from bones, shredding or chopping into small pieces.  Strain broth. (Note: If I don't have time to make good tasting stock, which I feel takes at least two chicken carcasses and about five hours on the stove top, I will use boxed broth.  And then I might even get a roasted chicken from the grocery store.  Don't tell.)

In a large pot, saute walnuts, onion, and garlic in butter.  Add 3 quarts chicken stock and diced pumpkin.  Simmer until pumpkin is done, about 20 minutes.  Add chicken and frozen corn and season to taste (with salt, pepper, and whatever you like, such as oregano, poultry seasoning, bouquet garni, fines herbes, rosemary, or chili powder and cumin), bringing to a simmer again.

If you're feeling fancy and adorable, and endlessly energetic, hollow out yet another pumpkin to used as a soup tureen.  Have small bowls of condiments to top the soup when you serve--with grated cheese, sunflower seeds, fried tortilla strips, and avocados.



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    you belong in the food writer hall of fame. you are SO delicous. xoxoxxoxox

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