The Great Pumpkin

Once October rolls around, out come the pumpkins, filling the bins and crates of every market. Why does the pumpkin have a whole mystique that captivates and enchants? It inevitably has to adorn doorsteps, stoops and porches in every neighborhood.

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All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

The month is almost over, but I am driven to share my own fascination with the iconic pumpkins. I understand the association with Halloween and jack-o’-lanterns to ward off spirits and ghosts. I am neither superstitious (well maybe a little) nor a stickler for tradition but I am still completely smitten and bewitched by their annual arrival, like aliens out of nowhere.

The orange glow of their hard and smooth skin—that is more like a tortoise shell or crustacean carapace with ridges that meet at the base of a scrunched up coarse and sometimes gnarly stem—contrasts ever so vigorously with the grays of the side-walk cement and the washed-out hues of brick and paint of city buildings and townhouses.

The first time I laid eyes on a pumpkin was in an illustrated children’s book, probably the Cinderella story. That is perhaps where the magical entrancement began. I don’t remember ever seeing a real pumpkin until I came to the U.S., although I am sure it grew in Lebanon, but I do not recall any of my family ever eating or cooking with pumpkin.

I have taken my children to pumpkin patches to pick their own. I have carved pumpkins at Halloween events year after year, or turned them in to vessels to hold floral centerpieces for Halloween and Thanksgiving table settings (thank you Martha Stewart). I have taken hundreds of photographs of pumpkins. It’s as though by taking photos, I might break the spell or unveil the secret behind my obsession.

The path to demystification is to get to know your subject. Wikepedia tells me that the U.S. produces 680,000 tons of pumpkins each year and that 95% of the crop intended for processing is grown in Illinois. I’d be blown away by the sheer size of those pumpkin fields and my small iPhone camera will certainly have a hard time wrapping it’s frame around that picture!
I also discovered (see Colonial Williamsburg Journal (CW Journal : Autumn 09 : Some Pumpkins!) that the colonials did not celebrate Halloween. The holiday was brought over to the U.S. by the Irish immigrants in the 19th century along with the jack-0’-lanterns that were originally carved turnips. The article also mentioned that the pumpkin had been, for thousands of years, a nourishing staple both for North and South America’s indigenous people. Pumpkin along with corn and beans was cultivated as part of the three sisters crop (a symbiotic relationship that improved yield). By the mid 1600s the settlers in the colonies were growing their own and incorporating them in their meals.

The plant itself is described as a delicate, thirsty and voracious feeder. It  produces both female and male flowers and depends heavily on pollination by bees. The pumpkin that is cultivated for decoration (not cooking) is just one variety of pumpkin also known as winter squash. They come in all shapes and colors and much is discussed about the difference in flavor and sweetness. Food52 has a post showing all the varieties (in case you have the time and the interest).

It’s not the visual aspect of the fruit alone that thrills me, it’s also the arrival of all things pumpkin in bakeries and stores: pumpkin pie, bread, scones and pumpkin cheesecake. But I draw the line at pumpkin flavored latte in coffee shops! There is pumpkin eggnog and ale… both not for me either.

Yes, I have made curried pumpkin soup and pumpkin scones in my day, I also use some varieties of squash in soups and stews— but I never made a pumpkin pie. Since all confections are ready-made, easily available, delicious and for the most part cheap(-ish?), why bother with the mess. I turn to canned pumpkin puree for some needs or the conveniently peeled and cut winter squash at the markets. But I am encouraged to do try working it from scratch someday when I have time for the ritual. Maybe that will exorcise my enchantment for good.

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Pumpkin kibbeh in the making, with filling (above) and completed and baked (below). All photos© 2016 Fadia Jawdat

Soon after moving to D.C. I discovered that pumpkin kibbeh is a regional Lebanese dish that is found ready-made in Middle-Eastern take-out delis in the suburbs. The small pumpkin kibbeh balls stuffed with spinach, onions and nuts are delicious but too time-consuming to make myself. I recommend The Gourmet Basket in McLean, VA (no, they are not sponsoring this post). Call first to ensure they have enough on hand. They sell out quickly.

One snowy Sunday last February, I tried making the kibbeh “pie” using canned pumpkin puree. It was a lot of work but I had a pair of helping hands: a vegan daughter who was invested in the process in order to reap the benefits. I used the recipe from the Classic Lebanese Cuisine cookbook by Kamal Al-Faqih, but there are others on line including Emeril Lagasse (can you believe it?!) and a multitude of videos ranging from the good, the bad and the funny, showing method and process for making either the balls or the “pie”.

Finally no pumpkin story can go without mention of a longtime (baby-boomer) favorite, the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz and the Great Pumpkin, a mythical figure in whom only Linus van Pelt seems to believe. Every Halloween Linus awaits in a pumpkin patch but the Great Pumpkin never appears. Unlike Linus, I know that pumpkins, luckily, will appear every year in October. Wake up Linus, the Great Pumpkin is all around you, focus on what is real. The Great Pumpkin is here in all its magic and all its glory.

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Tireless Food Explorer

Lisa Gershenson. Photo © 2016 Eric Futran

When I met Lisa she had just bagged her career as a therapist and was cooking for small parties and events. I was supplementing my designer income by moon-lighting with a small group of interesting people including my friend Nadra. We tended bar, passed hors-d’oeuvre and served dinner at bar mitzvahs in Westchester, wedding receptions on Park Avenue and UN parties on the Upper East Side. We were hired by several caterers, Lisa was among them. Petite in stature, short, salt and pepper hair, twinkly green eyes, a beaming smile and large dangling earings—which she stroked almost as a nervous tick—she spoke in a husky voice, giving the team clear articulate instruction.

Our professional relationship quickly turned into friendship. Polite conversations were replaced by passionate exchanges over cuisines and markets. Eventually, I was to be invited into her “sanctuary”.  It was there, in her New York apartment on West 73rd and Riverside, that a privileged few had the pleasure to participate in the development of her culinary repertoire. She fretted about upcoming jobs and needed to submit her entire menu for critique before presenting it to clients. We were at least a half dozen women, but diverse enough to represent a reliable cross-section of New York’s demographic profile deeming us the perfect participants and tasters for her “test kitchen”. It was all in good fun: nowhere near a scientific market study, but a forum of friends who were the lucky recipients of Lisa’s huge talent and generosity.

The dining area was separated from a miniscule kitchen by an opening in the wall. The dining table, normally turned into a production area for lack of counter-space, was transformed for the occasion into an elegant setting complete with flowers and candles. We were in one of the world’s greatest culinary capitals sipping our sake or wine, overlooking New Jersey’s glistening skyline and savoring sips of soups, appetizer bites and samplings of entrees. Lisa served one dish at a time in small exquisite bowls. She never missed a beat, never forgot a thoughtful garnish and always announced and explained what was being served. She joined us for a few minutes at  a time, her eyes scanning our faces, intensely deciphering reactions and expressions. We purred over velvety concoctions, hummed to the melodies of tropical salsas and died and went to heaven over her chocolate and ginger confections. That was the time when “fusion” cuisine had begun to surface and that in itself was exhilarating enough. But with Lisa being our master guide, our guru and host, we felt snobbishly enlightened and initiated. Drenched in praise and compliments, our chef checked off another dish from the testing list.

Although I was sad to see her leave New York, Lisa’s culinary career took off after moving to Chicago. She took on one project after another while going back to culinary school and constantly traveling and exploring the world’s markets and eateries in search of knowledge and inspiration.

She and her husband established one of Chicago’s finest catering companies J & L Inc. She later became director of the Community Kitchen program at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. After that she wore many hats in various positions helping out non-profits and consulting for businesses, culinary start-ups and food entrepreneurs. She has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Jim Lehrer News Hour on PBS. Her recent  Cook’s Gazette, an online journal which she started a year and a half ago, is the culmination of her life’s achievements and experiences. The content of her articles reflects her generosity of spirit, her curiosity about world markets and cuisines, her openness, her affinity and empathy with cooks from all walks of life bringing their stories, methods and ingredients into the limelight.

She has inspired and mentored many. We have kept in touch and visited each other a few times over the years. We call each other to check in but I often call her in a panic: “what should I do???!! I have twenty people for dinner and a huge whole grouper that will not fit in my oven!”
-“First”, she says, “you pour yourself a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and then you have two choices….”  —On a side note I no longer invite twenty people for dinner and have never again roasted a whole grouper in my oven, not that it wasn’t a success… it’s just that I have chosen to turn my kitchen into a stress-free zone ever since that experience.

Lisa has a gift of making you feel at ease no matter the situation. The wealth of her knowledge appeases all anxiety instantly. She is also tirelessly enthusiastic, always ready to jump in and help. And what do you think we do when we get together? After chatting over a cup of the “elixir of life” (Lisa’s name for the arabic/turkish coffee with cardamom I introduced her to when we first met), we shop the markets, we (she) cook(s) and we (I) eat! On her last visit to DC she made a delicious dinner that we shared with neighbors and friends. On the menu was an eggplant dish which I share below.

“Eggplant is my signature” she says proudly. There are many other eggplant recipes on her website that you might explore and enjoy.

Lisa’s Delicious Way of Making Eggplant 

Ingredients:
1.5 lbs eggplant
1 lb. onion
1 lb. tomato
Half a head of garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp oregano
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Olive oil for tossing* onions and eggplant. You have to eyeball quantities.

Method:
Slice onions thin, toss with olive oil and saute until rich brown.  Do not hurry this step.  Add garlic when onions are almost ready cook 5 minutes or so more, add skinned chopped tomatoes, 1 cup water, herbs, salt and pepper and simmer for 15 minutes covered.

Toss eggplant with olive oil, begin to brown in saute pan and then add water, cover and cook until just soft all the way through.

Combine tomato mixture and eggplant mixture and bake in 350 F oven for around 45 minutes when tomato starts to caramelize.  Good hot, room temp, especially good the next day!