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“Turkey” Day? Pumpkin Day! (cheesy stuffed pumpkin)

December 19, 2010

Even as a vegetarian, I never saw anything wrong with a giant turkey as the centerpiece for the family Thanksgiving table.  Both for the obvious reason (I’m pretty sure the other 20 or so guests would be mad if my dietary choices ruled the dinner menu) and the fact that a cooked bird actually looks rather impressive.  At least until it’s carved, when things can get pretty gross.

Then I got into food and a hundred different food blogs, and I read so many posts this year telling me that a proper vegetarian needs to find a proper vegetarian centerpiece to replace the no-longer-necessary bird.  I largely considered this hogwash.  Who cares about an edible centerpiece, when the table is bedecked with such an impressive array of sides?  For many years, I even considered it a competitive advantage to be able to avoid the main dish.  And yes Thanksgiving is a competition – whoever eats the most without getting sick wins.  Losing that extra burden brought on by the turkey really helped me out year after year.

Not surprisingly, it was a pumpkin recipe that pushed me over the edge.  If a pumpkin’s in play, then a vegetarian centerpiece suddenly becomes vital.  As in, required-for-the-existence-of-Thanksgiving vital.  I talked about it so much that Amanda and our friends added it to our running Fakesgiving menu without me even asking about it.  One of the many reasons I love them.  And after all that, it’s a small miracle that the dish ever got made after the trouble of finding a pumpkin, the no bread debacle, and the fact that I wanted to eat the entirety of the stuffing contents before anything made its way to the oven.  The stuffing alone is that delicious.  Can you really go wrong with bread, cheese, garlic and cream?  The answer is no; however, you can go so much more right by stuffing all of that into a little sugar pumpkin.

The pumpkin really does rival the turkey as a beautiful, autumnal centerpiece.  Another beautiful aspect of this recipe is that it’s so simple, that you can pass it on to that relative who always wants to be of use in the kitchen, but doesn’t know a spatula from a fly swatter.  Note that by writing this, I’m not implying anything about the beloved friend who Amanda and I had assemble this for our holiday, while we worked on other recipes.  I’m just sayin’ though, in the future the task might fall to the brother who asked me for help with frozen pasta last night.

Cheesy Stuffed Pumpkin

Adapted lightly from Dorie Greenspan, makes 4-6 servings

1 2.5-3 pound sugar pumpkin
4 ounces stale bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (or just torn into pieces)
4 ounces cheese such as cheddar, blue or Swiss, grated or crumbled (see notes)
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
About 1/2 cup heavy cream
Grated nutmeg, optional
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Move an oven rack to a position leaving about 1 foot of clearance and preheat the oven to 350°F.

Cut a cap out of your pumpkin, making sure to cut at an angle so that cap fits nicely back on the pumpkin.  Use a knife to cut the seeds and strings off the cap and set aside.

Now comes the hardest part of the recipe – cleaning out the pumpkin.  There are some great jack-o-lantern tool kits made precisely for this purpose, but a spoon will do in a pinch.  Attack the pumpkin with your spoon, making sure to remove all the seeds and as much of the stringy gunk as possible.  I found it was best to sacrifice a little bit of the underlying pumpkin and dig the spoon into the flesh of the vegetable to eat away at the toughest patches of it’s guts.  (Make sure to save the gunk – you can salvage the seeds for roasting!)  Season the inside of your carved pumpkin with salt and pepper.

In a large mixing bowl, mix together the bread, cheese and garlic.  Add a hint of nutmeg (less than 1/8th tablespoon for people like my mom who crave quantitative rather than qualitative measures) to cream and then add to bread mix.  Bread should be moistened, but not dripping in cream.  I found about 1/2 cup was a good amount, but you may want less or more based on how stale your bread is.

Season with salt and pepper.  Test the bread at this point to check the level of seasoning.  Resist the urge to run away to a remote corner of the apartment with the bowl of uncooked, cheesy, cream-soaked bread so that you can devour the whole bowl.

Stuff the emptied pumpkin with the bread.  I had more than enough bread to fill the pumpkin to the top, which conveniently left some unbaked leftovers for a mid-cooking snack.

Soak the cap in water to make sure that the wood doesn’t catch fire in your oven.  Put cap back on the stuffed pumpkin, place pumpkin in a casserole dish and bake for about 2 hours.  Cooking time will vary based on your pumpkin, so check after 1.5 hours.  You’ll know the pumpkin is done when the flesh can be easily pierced and looks roasted.  If you’d like the stuffing to brown, remove cap for last 20 minutes of baking.

The pumpkin can be served multiple ways.  I cut mine into 4 wedges leaving the dismantled pumpkin in the casserole dish.  You could also cut into small half-wedges and arrange the resulting squares (pumpkin + stuffing atop) on a platter for a more refined look.  Finally, Dorie suggests scooping out the stuffing and the surrounding pumpkin and making a sort of stuffing mash, which I also imagine would be tasty.

Notes: I tried this with both cheddar and blue cheese.  As much as I hate to admit cheddar is not forever superior, blue was the clear winner in this battle.  Both tasted delicious though, so go with your gut.  In addition to the choice of cheeses, there are as many adaptations to this recipe as you can imagine.  You could head more in the traditional route with celery and onions and broth in place of the cream, with maybe a hint of parmesan in place of the other cheese options.  Or embrace the nutmeg a little more and add in some walnuts, with a good blue cheese.  I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

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