A pumpkin can do many things. Scoop it out and take a knife to its thick, fleshy rind in October and the result is a jack-o-lantern for Halloween. Less than a month later, the innards of another gorgeous, globular gourd can become a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.
But why stop there? Pumpkin fits spectacularly within the current trend toward sweet-savory dishes. Its traditional enhancers, including cinnamon and nutmeg, offer a warm base for spices such as cumin and smoked paprika, that with the addition of salt, pepper, garlic and perhaps a shake or two of hot sauce or some diced jalapeno, turn pumpkin into something far more complex than pie filling.
Those generous vendors at the International Fancy Food show continue to send me interesting things to try. I recently received a jar of pumpkin pasta sauce, which I look forward to using when the weather turns a bit nippier. Knowing myself, I will be unable to simply use the product straight from the jar. I imagine dicing some bacon and rendering it first, then sauting some onion in the fat before returning the crisped bacon to the dish right at the end. A sprinkling of pecan chips over top would make a nice garnish.
Pecans are another sweet-savory ingredient I am using in all sorts of ways. I'm tossing them into salads and studding creamy dishes with their gentle crunch.
The other day, my friend Donna asked for advice in putting together a luncheon party for a friend's birthday. She wanted to go beyond her usual repertoire of dishes. I suggested a green salad, topped with a protein such as grilled, wild-caught salmon. But that was too far beyond her cooking comfort zone. So I said I would simply come over and cook for her.
I gave her a shopping list and on the day of the party, arrived 90 minutes ahead of her guests. I brought my favorite knife and cutting board, a whisk and several spices I doubted she had. Instead of the salmon, since she said she wasn't sure her friends like fish, we opted for a rotisserie-chicken salad.
Two grocery-store chickens began the preparation. I tore the meat from the breasts and thighs, and shredded it with my hands, then added sliced green grapes and pecans, mayo and spices. That went over a salad of baby spinach and arugula, dressed with raspberry vinaigrette and garnished with a sprinkling of (more!) pecans.
Garlic bread and a simple, fresh-fruit salad, finished with honey-orange vanilla yogurt dressing, completed the meal. I prepared mimosas for Donna to pass as her friends arrived and left them to their party as the bread finished in the oven.
My friends tell me that my next career is as a personal chef, but I could never conform to menu expectations. I cook too much by feel and what's available. I can't leave recipes alone. I'd rather surf Internet food sites to learn six or seven ways of making a dish, then discard the recipes and fly into it on instinct. Thus, I rarely make the same thing, the same way, twice.
Having received flaked maple sugar from a Fancy Food Show vendor, I plan to test a recipe I have been rolling around in my head. First I will fresh-pop corn in neutral oil, then toss the hot popcorn with salt and the maple sugar to make a version of kettle korn. I imagine it will taste good. If so, it will be fleeting. I have about enough sugar to make it one more time, if the first batch works out.