Where we live in southwest France, size is of the essence; in fact, the bigger, the better. One of our local villages held a competition a couple of years ago for the biggest, heaviest and oddest shaped.
I am of course talking about pumpkins, otherwise known as potirons or citrouilles in French. The difference between them seems to be that the potiron is bigger, but, curiously, citrouille is the word used as an insult for a fat person.
They have been nestling (the citrouilles, not the fat people) under the leaves in the potagers for months, quietly growing into monstrous, misshapen globes. We looked out of the window once to see elderly neighbours struggling up the drive, each bearing an enormous pumpkin from their potager.
The most common use for pumpkins seems to be for making Hallowe’en lanterns, but they are now at their best for eating (see recipes below).
Concours de Citrouilles
To mark Hallowe’en, the village held a Concours de Citrouilles in the Salle des Fêtes. There were three competitions:
- Biggest, heaviest and/or most original pumpkin;
- Best pumpkin lantern; and
- Most original children’s Hallowe’en fancy dress.
As in flower shows in England, competition is intense and suspicions of cheating rife. Wasn’t he seen at Villefranche market eyeing up the pumpkins? Hasn’t she been injecting hers with beer, and is that allowed? Competitors suspiciously poke and prod their rivals’ citrouilles. But in the end everyone bows to the judges’ decision.
No French event worth its salt takes place without a meal to celebrate it. Triumphant winners and disappointed losers alike sat down to soupe au potiron (what else?), cassoulet and tarte aux pommes. Rivalries were forgotten for another year as the wine flowed.
Pumpkins keep for some time, but you don’t have to buy a whole one. At French markets, they will hack off a piece for you, or you can buy them in chunks at the supermarket. If you do that, you need to use the chunks within a few days or they go slimy.
I have adapted both recipes below from Delia Smith. You can also substitute butternut squash, known as courge butternut in French, in these recipes. Make sure you have a large, sharp knife to get into them as the skin is like rhinoceros hide. You’ll also need a good potato peeler or paring knife to peel off the skin once you’ve cut the pumpkin or squash into chunks.
Pumpkin soup (serves 6)
The flavour of the soup is greatly enhanced if you roast the pumpkin first. While this might seem a bit fiddly, it’s certainly worth it.
- 1.2 kg pumpkin or butternut squash
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 800 ml chicken stock
- 400 ml semi-skimmed milk
- Olive oil for roasting
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- Grated nutmeg
- Sprig of fresh thyme, finely chopped
Pre-heat oven to 220ºC. Cut the pumpkin into fairly large chunks, removing any seeds and leaving the skin on. Brush with oil and roast in a shallow roasting tin for 40 minutes till tender and slightly charred. Remove from oven and leave to cool. Fry onion gently in remaining oil in a large saucepan until soft. Add stock and milk to onions and bring slowly to simmering point. Remove skin from pumpkin and add flesh to saucepan. Add thyme, salt and pepper and grate in some fresh nutmeg. Simmer gently for 20 minutes, then allow to cool slightly and liquidise.
I like to serve this with some crumbled crispy-fried bacon scattered on top. If using butternut squash, grated fresh parmesan goes rather well on top.
Roasted vegetables (serves 6)
These vegetables are delicious with game or robust casseroles. I have also served them successfully with a goat’s cheese and red onion tart for a vegetarian friend. You can use any combination, or all, of the vegetables below.
- 1 kg pumpkin or butternut squash
- 2 red onions
- 2 sweet potatoes
- 1 large swede
- 1 medium sized celeriac
- 2 large carrots
- 2 parsnips
- 2 large cloves garlic, crushed
- Fresh thyme and rosemary, finely chopped
- Salt and black pepper
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
You can prepare the vegetables several hours in advance, but you need to pre-heat the oven to 220ºC before cooking. Peel and cut the vegetables into 4 cm chunks and cut the onions into eighths (they will shrink when cooking). Mix them in a large bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper, crushed garlic and chopped herbs. Don’t use more than a sprig of rosemary or its flavour will dominate. Cover the bowl and set aside until ready to cook. Put the vegetables into a large roasting tin (or two if you have space in the oven). Cook for about 40-45 minutes, turning occasionally, until tender and charred round the edges.
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