Mention ‘pumpkin’ to an American or British child and chances are the little one is conjuring an image of a night spent in costume wandering the streets in a chocolate haze under the gaze of lanterns with glowering triangular eyes and jagged teeth. Mention pumpkin to my eight-year-old son Massimo and it’s anyone’s guess whether he’s thinking pasta, gnocchi, risotto or pie!
Crates at the market stacked high with large orange and knobbly dark green pumpkins are the first sure sign that summer’s over and it isn’t coming back for another year. Italians love their pumpkins, so much so they would never countenance carving one up for the sake of a decoration. In fact, there’s nothing about their beloved pumpkin that they’re prepared to throw away. There’s a local saying that the pumpkin is a bit like the pig, nothing ever gets wasted. As it happens every part of the plant is edible starting from the leaves and the flowers along with the flesh. The seeds are delicious toasted, salted and eaten as an appetiser and even the thick, hard outer skin doesn’t have to go to waste. True pumpkin aficionados will cut it into thin strips, boil it and then lightly pan-fry in olive oil. Alternatively, it can be simply baked in the oven with a little water and served with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
My neighbour, Gabriella, is making tortelli di zucca (pumpkin ravioli). I’m sitting in her kitchen watching, mesmerized. “Here in
Piacenza”, she explains, “pumpkin tortelli are traditional this time of the year” – and the people of are sticklers for tradition. Skillfully she continues to roll, cut, fill and shape ravioli with lightning speed, hardly watching what she is doing. The process is intrinsic. “I first made tortelli in this kitchen with my mother”, she explains. That was over 70 years ago. Clearly Gabriella learned well. In a short span of time the large wooden table is covered with hundreds of square tortelli. Piacenza
Tortelli di zucca are made all over
Italy today but they are, and always have been, most popular in the Provinces of Mantova and and other parts of the Bassa Padana (Po Basin). Traditionally they were prepared for Christmas Eve, a festive occasion when dietary restrictions would have prohibited the consumption of meat. The filling is made from a base of pumpkin, a small amount of apple or pear mostarda (a sweet and spicy mustard fruit syrup), amaretti biscuits, grana padano cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. They are generally served simply with melted butter, a few sage leaves and a generous sprinkling of cheese. Alternatively, in some parts they are eaten with a topping of fried sausage and herbs (a personal favourite) or sliced onions pan fried in butter. Piacenza
Of course, the popularity of pumpkin in Italian cooking must at least in part lie in its versatility. If you don’t have a hankering for pasta (which can happen, or so I’ve heard!), you can always use it as the basis to an equally tasty bowl of gnocchi or risotto or minestrone. Whatever takes your fancy! As for me (and my son Massimo), as I walk home with a tray brimming with ravioli, no prizes for guessing what’s on the menu.
OK, admittedly Gabriella did all the hard work for me this time, but that’s what neighbours are for! And should you have a craving for a bowl of the same, here’s the traditional recipe.
Tortelli di zucca
For the pasta:
300g plain flour
For the filling:
150g amaretti cookies
70g mostarda (either apple or pear),
100g grated grana padano cheese
Grated zest of half a lemon
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
A large sprig of rosemary
2 salamelle (fat Italian sausages)
Prepare the pumpkin by removing the seeds and cutting into chunks. The pumpkin flesh can either be steamed or baked in the oven until tender. It is better not to boil the pumpkin as the flesh will become too moist. Once cooked, remove the skin and place into a food processor with all the rest of the ingredients for the filling and whiz to a smooth paste. You should refrigerate the filling for at least 6 hours as this allows the flavours to develop.
Make the pasta dough by combining the eggs with the flour and knead until a smooth dough is formed. Allow the pasta to rest before rolling it out. Roll out a long sheet of pasta. This is easiest done with a pasta machine. At regular intervals add a teaspoon of the filling. Cover the sheet of pasta with another sheet and gently press down with your hands around the filling to remove any air pockets. Using a pasta wheel, cut the ravioli to your desired shape. Continue until all the pasta and filling are used up. To cook the ravioli, place in a large pan of boiling salted water for 3-5 minutes (depending on the thickness of your pasta), drain and serve with the following sauce.
To make the sauce, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan. Remove the skin from the sausages and crumble into the pan. Cook over a medium to high heat until browned and then add the chopped rosemary. Continue cooking for another few minutes and then serve over the cooked pasta with plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese.