Chef Alistair Dibbs, from the Hallingbury Events Company, shares his recipe for pumpkin risotto with sage and smoked almonds
Top chef Alistair Dibbs, from Little Hallingbury, extols the virtues of growing, cooking and eating your own food...
So with Hallowe'en just around the corner I have buckled to pressure from my children to do the obvious thing and write about the humble pumpkin in this week's column!
There is something really satisfying about growing a vegetable that grows really large and that I have only ever previously bought from a shop. On the flip side it is slightly disheartening to have spent three months growing a vegetable that is actually selling for less than the cost of half a pint of beer (the carving variety of pumpkins are currently £1 each in supermarkets), but I suppose you can't have everything!
It's fair to say that the pumpkin has had a checkered history. As you may have guessed from the level of enthusiasm from our American friends around Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving, pumpkins were originally grown in North America. The earliest evidence of them being grown was found in Mexico and dates back to about 6000 BC.
They are believed to have been brought to the UK in Tudor times from America via France. The Tudors had a specific love of pies and heavy food in general. Whilst the early cookbooks chronicle the Tudor upper classes with regular banquets consisting of such oddities as swan, beaver and puffin - yes, puffin! - pumpkins were first used as a cheap form of pie fodder to fill up farm workers during the cold winter months.
There was also an alternative early English version of the all-American pumpkin pie which consisted of a large whole pumpkin stuffed full of apples, spices and sugar. This was then baked in the oven. Think of it as a vegetarian forerunner of a three-bird roast, but not something I would advise attempting in a household oven!
Although there is no way I can profess to being an expert grower of either pumpkins or squashes, I have trialled them over the last couple of years in the garden with reasonably promising results.
Here are my growing tips:
- Start pumpkin seeds in individual pots of compost on the windowsill in April or May;
- Plant them out when all risk of frost has passed - early to mid-June is usually fine;
- Plant them in good-quality compost in a sunny area of the garden. The plants will tend to grow along the ground and yellow flowers will form before dropping off and allowing the pumpkins to form;
- As the pumpkins grow, water them regularly and feed them weekly with a high-potassium feed. When the pumpkins get to a reasonable size, place a piece of wood or a brick underneath each one so they ripen away from the soil, reducing the chance of attacks from pests.
There are several varieties of pumpkin that grow in the UK. Here are some of the most common:
This is by far my favourite pumpkin variety. As the name suggests, the skin is a light brown or beige colour with bright orange flesh.
They have a low water content and are therefore fantastic for cooking as they don't shrink much when roasted or chargrilled. They also make a deliciously full-flavoured thick soup or puree – definitely too good to be used for carving!
This is the go-to pumpkin for all your carving needs! They are dark green when growing, gradually changing to a bright orange when ripe.
Unfortunately, they are a bit 'all mouth and no trousers' as while they look great with their bright orange skin and carve really well, they really struggle due to a lack of flavour as well as being excessively watery when cooked.
Try comparing a soup made with this pumpkin to a soup made with the French brownskin and you will see what I mean.
Crown prince pumpkin or squash
This variety has an unmistakable green/blue skin and orange flesh, similar to the ironbark variety. They too are quite dry, so lend themselves well to soup or chargrilling.
Alistair's recipe for pumpkin risotto with sage and smoked almonds
I use hints of orange and maple syrup to give the pumpkin a very slightly sweet edge which contrasts well with the savoury saltiness of the smoked almonds.
40ml olive oil
500g risotto rice
1 litre vegetable stock
1 large onion, finely diced
2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
100g grated parmesan
50g crème fraiche
20g smoked almonds
5g each of finely chopped sage, mint and parsley leaves
For the puree
800g piece of French brownskin pumpkin, skin and seeds removed
40g grated parmesan
20g maple syrup
50ml fresh orange juice
Firstly, chop up three quarters of the pumpkin into rough chunks, reserving the remaining quarter for later.
Take a medium-sized heavy-based saucepan and place on a medium heat. Add the butter to the pan and then add the chopped pumpkin and cook for a couple of minutes.
Next add the parmesan, maple syrup and orange juice and a pinch of salt. Place a lid on the pan and turn the heat down and let it cook until the pumpkin is very soft.
Pour it all into a blender and puree until it is really smooth, before setting it aside until needed.
Now to make the risotto. Pour the vegetable stock into a pan and bring to a slow simmer, keeping it at the back of the cooker within reach but not in your way.
Place another heavy-based pan on a medium heat and add in the oil. Add the shallot and garlic to the pan and gently saute it until translucent (it's really important that it doesn't take on any colour).
Next add the rice to the pan and cook for another five minutes, constantly stirring. Add the white wine and wait for it to be absorbed into the rice before adding the sock a ladle at a time.
When all the stock has been absorbed the rice should still be slightly undercooked. Turn the heat down very low and add the puree to the rice and stir it in, and the rice will continue to absorb it.
Now take a heavy frying pan, place it on a medium heat and dice up the reserved pumpkin into pieces about the size of a sugar cube. Place a little butter into the pan and saute the pumpkin until it takes on a lovely golden brown colour and is cooked through, then season it with a little salt and keep it warm.
Now to finish the risotto. Using a clean spoon check the seasoning of the risotto and check it is cooked but has a slight bite. The risotto should really taste of pumpkin with a very slight sweetness from the maple syrup.
Gently mix the crème fraiche, parmesan and butter into the risotto and spoon it onto four warmed plates.
Place the pumpkin dice onto the risotto and sprinkle on the chopped herbs and smoked almonds. Finally finish with more grated parmesan and serve straight away.