You could set your watch by it, my mad love affair every autumn with all things squash-y and pumpkin-ish. A few weeks ago, I was kneading up pumpkin bread; this morning, mixing up a batch of rice-flour pumpkin muffins for a grateful wheat-free friend. The kids are carving their pumpkins out on the porch, and I'm planning for tomorrow's dinner, a grand stew served out of a stunning Rouge Vif d'Etampes pumpkin, the flattish, deeply indented beauty, as flaming red-gold as Joan's burnished tresses on Mad Men. It's also known as the Cinderella pumpkin, with good reason, since it seems to lack only six white mice to pull it straight into fairy godmother-land.
It's a little more dainty, if not quite so dramatic, to serve your pumpkin stew or soup in individual, bowl-sized pumpkins rather than one huge one, I'll admit. Whichever you use, prep them like you're getting ready to entertain the trick-or-treaters: saw out a generous circle around the top, reach in and scoop out what you can of the stringy, seedy stuff, and set it aside. Then, get a big metal soup spoon, and scrape out all the remaining stringy bits.
Separate the seeds from the pumpkin innards, and rinse the seeds well. Pat dry, then spread out on a baking sheet. Toss with enough olive or vegetable oil to coat lightly, then sprinkle with salt and paprika, smoked paprika, or chili powder, adding in a little cayenne if you like. Bake at 325 F until crisp and toasty, about 15 to 20 minutes. These are great for snacking, naturally, and also make a nice garnish.
(If you have backyard chickens, toss them the pumpkin guts and any stray raw seeds that escaped the pick-through. They'll snaffle them up like candy corn.)
But we're getting distracted here from the main event. To prep your pumpkins, put your big (or your little pumpkins) and their tops on a baking sheet covered with parchment or foil. Rub a little vegetable oil over the flesh. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove top(s), turn pumpkins bottom side up, and continue baking for another 25-35 minutes, depending on size, until flesh is tender but firm and pumpkin still holds its shape. It's important not to wander off during this time, as the pumpkin shells will collapse if they're overbaked.
Now, what do you want to put in your pumpkins? If you're going to all the trouble of scooping and baking these babies, what's in them should be the main course, I believe. Which means something rich and stew-like, not the usual pashmina-smooth, curried or apple-y bisques. In the Bay Area, the skeletons and jack o' lanterns of Halloween are always interwoven with the sugar skulls and marigold-strewn altars of the Mexican Day of the Dead.
So why not use goat as a base for this stew, a traditional meat for the latter--and, with their spooky eyes and devilish implications, a perfectly haunting choice for Halloween, too. Halal meat counters and Latino markets are good places to find goat; you can also find it at Marin Sun Farms' butcher shop in Rockridge Market Hall. You could also substitute lamb.
Halloween Pumpkin Stew
If you're going to serve this in one large pumpkin or squash, make sure you pick out a good eating one, such as a rouge vif d'etamps or a musquee de provence. Both are wider than they are tall, an important consideration. Make sure the one you pick will fit in your oven before you start.
1 large, shallow pumpkin or squash, or 6 small bowl-sized pumpkins, prepared and baked as above
2 1/2 lbs goat or lamb, cubed
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp chipotle powder or smoked paprika
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled and diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 tsp thyme or oregano
1 bay leaf
1 cup red wine
2 dried ancho chilies, soaked in hot water until soft, seeds and stems removed, pureed in a little hot water until smooth, or 2-3 canned chiles in adobo, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (I use Muir Glen's fire-roasted organic tomatoes)
Roasted pumpkin seeds, for garnish
1. Toss flour, paprika, and salt together, and spread out on a wide, shallow plate. Roll goat or lamb cubes through flour mixture to coat.
2. In a heavy Dutch oven or wide, heavy saucepan, heat olive oil. Add meat in batches, browning on all sides over medium-high heat. Remove and set aside.
3. When meat has been cooked, add onions, garlic, celery, and carrot. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring frequently, until softened but not browned. Return meat to pot.
4. Pour red wine over meat and vegetables. Add chiles, diced tomatoes, and thyme or oregano. Add water if necessary so that liquid comes half-way meat and vegetable mixture.
5. Bring mixture to a simmer, reduce heat, and cover. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender and liquid is reduced, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as needed.
6. Preheat oven to 350 F. Pour stew into prepared pumpkin(s). Bake for 30-40 minutes, until pumpkin flesh is tender and stew has thickened a bit. Taste for seasoning. Remove from oven carefully, since it will be hot and heavy. Replace lid and bring to the table.
7. Pass pumpkin seeds at the table for garnish. Scoop out a portion of cooked pumpkin with each serving, being careful not to pierce the skin.