When I lived in Italy, in a small village near Turin, I discovered many curious vegetables at the weekly farmers' market. Several farmers sold bundles of cream-colored, deeply ribbed stems that looked like overgrown celery. They were cardoons, I came to find -- particularly delicious with anchovies. Other farmers offered curly heads of radicchio, small and precious, like carefully wrapped jewelry. I learned to love puntarelle, a slender, serrated leaf that is a member of the chicory family. The most striking and unusual sight at the market, however, had to have been the rotund pumpkin set atop a chopping block. When market-goers asked for a one- or two-pound piece, the vendor deftly hacked an appropriately sized wedge of pumpkin. I thoroughly enjoyed this ritual and always seemed to have a wedge of pumpkin in my fridge during the fall and winter months.
Pumpkins that are grown to be cooked and eaten differ greatly from those that are destined to become jack-o'-lanterns. Their flesh is moist, dense, and heavy. Cooking pumpkins (also known as pie pumpkins) hold their shape when roasted and have an intensely sweet flavor. They can be used in both desserts and savory dishes.
The familiar round, orange pumpkin is just one of numerous varieties of winter squash. Although I have yet to see farmers selling pumpkin by the wedge at markets in Los Angeles, its relatives can be found in abundance. Butternut, acorn, and kabocha squashes are all small enough to buy whole. If you are game to try something larger, look for Blue Hubbard squash, which is shaped like an enormous football and will keep for months in your pantry. Rouge Vif d'etampes pumpkins, sometimes called Cinderella pumpkins, make a lovely doorstep decoration, but they are also delicious baked with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt.
I like to roast an entire winter squash -- sliced in half and seeds removed -- in a hot oven until tender and caramelized. Once cooked, the squash flesh can be scooped from the peel and then quickly puréed. It can be eaten just so, perhaps with a splash of cream. To transport yourself to Italy, layer spoonfuls of the puréed squash between sheets of fresh pasta. Buon appetito!
Pumpkin Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter
For these ravioli, you can use store-bought fresh pasta sheets or even won ton wrappers. If you would like to make your own pasta, follow the first part of this recipe.
1½ pounds Sugar Pie pumpkin, or other winter squash
1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
½ cup grated Parmigiano
1 pound fresh pasta sheets
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons fresh sage leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 425ºF.
Carefully cut the pumpkin in half. Scoop out the seeds. (You can save them for another recipe such as candied pumpkin seeds). Place the two halves on a baking sheet, drizzle them evenly with olive oil, and sprinkle them with red pepper, thyme, and ¼ teaspoon salt. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until the flesh is completely tender.
When the roasted pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and transfer it to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the Parmigiano, and blend until very smooth. Taste for proper seasoning, adding a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper if needed.
On a floured cutting board, cut the pasta sheets into 2-inch squares. Place 1 teaspoon of filling into the center of each square. Moisten the edges with water, then lay a second square of dough on top of the first and press around the filling to seal. Continue forming ravioli until you've used all the pasta sheets. (Any leftover purée can be reheated and served with roasted chicken for a simple dinner.)
Place the butter and sage leaves in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, swirling the pan, until the butter smells nutty and turns deep golden brown, about 4 - 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the ravioli into the boiling water. As soon as they float to the surface, transfer them to the hot skillet. Add ½ cup pasta water, then swirl the pan to coat the ravioli in the sage brown butter.
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