Sabbath at the Spectrum Café: A Dash of Caribbean Culture


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Nothing heralds fall more cheerfully than the sight of pumpkins—fortunately, never hard to find. Their orange glow emanates from produce isles, tabletops and welcome mats, taking seasonal center stage.

When I was growing up in Wales, Halloween was not necessarily a high day, although the jack-o-lanterns, created from members of the gourd family, were a well-loved motif of the season. Pumpkins, more useful than scary, were a staple in my mother’s kitchen throughout childhood, though I seldom saw one whole. And now, with the first chill of winter upon us, my mind harks back to those pumpkins, coarsely quartered, their seeds hanging messily by a tangle of fibers, ready to be transformed into her specialty: made-from-scratch pumpkin soup.

Pumpkin soup calls for allspice, so named because it tastes like a mixture of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and is often available as pimento. Pimento is safely mild (a zero rating) on the Scoville scale (a register for measuring the heat intensity of chilies; the popular condiment Tabasco is a seven). With this ingredient, there is little danger of accidentally overspicing a recipe beyond the comfort of one’s taste buds. Some Jamaican pumpkin soup recipes are quite liberal with such firebrand ingredients as Scotch Bonnet—an herb rated at nine on the Scoville scale.

My mother painfully recalls from childhood the incident of her swallowing a stray seed in a spoonful of soup, the shot of paralyzing agony as the seed touched her throat. Now, there are those for whom such fire is daringly appealing—but for her pumpkin soup? My mother wouldn’t hear of it!

In Manchester, Jamaica, the rural province of her childhood, people tamed the plants that were native and prolific to the region to their own small plot of land: Callaloo, (a spinach-like leaf), peas and pumpkins; thyme, marjoram and scallions. Their gardens furnished their tables. Moreover, limited choices in no way precluded the magic they could create with few ingredients. Tinkering and taste-testing to perfection, they still surpassed yet unheard-of nutritional requirements in ways that we, in a world of abundance and complexity, strive to emulate. There’s nothing like starting with the best raw materials.

Nutritionally, pumpkins are truly nature’s bounty, and seriously more treat-worthy than all the candy a kid might stuff into a pillowcase. If the trick is how to cook them, have no fear, for many are the ways. From old favorites like pumpkin pie, to their more modern cousins—pumpkin spice lattes, —the only trick this season would be to let them pass you by without trying them in a new way. So, how about a dash of Caribbean culture in a bowl of pumpkin soup?

Norma Borrett is a high school English teacher in an independent charter school. She lives in Newcastle, Calif., with her husband and two children.

Photo credit: Norma Borrett

Pumpkin Soup

This recipe for Pumpkin Soup comes from Borrett. She notes, “A shriveled pumpkin stem indicates the pumpkin’s ripeness. Mine weighed in at just over 11 pounds. For this recipe, half of it was more than sufficient, yielding 10 cups cooked.” When cutting through the pumpkin’s hard flesh, use a cleaver—and take care!

Serves: 6 Total time: 1 hr., 30 min. Active prep time: 50 minutes

Ingredients

¼ medium (about 3 lbs, total) pumpkin, cut into chunks* (3 16-oz cans of unsweetened pumpkin may be substituted, but the result will be somewhat less flavorful, and have more of a puréed texture) 1 knob (a heaped tablespoon) butter, non-hydrogenated margarine, or a dessert spoon of extra-virgin olive oil ½ medium yellow onion, finely diced 2 good-sized spring onions, chopped Four medium Roma tomatoes (or a sweet red seasonal variety works best) 4 cups vegetable stock (reconstituted with bouillon cubes, or ready made) 1 teaspoonful all-purpose seasoning 1 teaspoon ground pimento, or about six berries, coarsely crushed (crush with spice mortar and pestle; alternatively, I placed the berries between the folds of a paper napkin, then coarsely crushed them with a rolling pin) Several sprigs fresh thyme

Directions

1. Place the chunks of pumpkin into a covered saucepan of water and boil over medium heat for 30 minutes, or until the flesh is soft to the push of a table knife. Drain and cool.

2. Using a spoon, scoop the pumpkin out of the skin and into a dish. The pumpkin can now be mashed, or for smoother results, mix for a minute or two with a hand blender. Set aside.

3. Heat a 2-quart saucepan over low heat, and add the butter to melt, stirring. Once it’s melted, add the yellow onion and stir till the pieces begin to caramelize.

5. Stir in the spring onions and tomatoes, then add 4 cups of the blended pumpkin.

6. Stir in the vegetable stock., then add the all-purpose seasoning, pimento and thyme.

7. Add the remaining stock, and stir to blend all the ingredients. Cover and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

8. Add more pumpkin to thicken, or more stock to thin out as desired. The consistency and texture of the finished soup should be halfway between a chowder and a broth, containing a satisfying portion of pumpkin, without the weightiness of full a meal.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5600