Blu Aubergine Blog


Autumn is represented by many things: colorful leaves, apples, jackets and sweaters and boots for cooler weather. But perhaps most representative of the change in the kitchen from summer garden to fall's harvest bounty? The pumpkin. 

In the U.S., the image we have of pumpkins is often of the jack-o-lantern. The members of the pumpkin family that we generally consider good eating fall under the "squash" moniker: butternut, acorn, spaghetti...but they're all members of the gourd family, which also incidentally includes cucumbers, melons, and zucchini. 

These plants are all native to The Americas -- particularly Central America and Mexico -- which is why pumpkin and squash are often featured in our traditional Thanksgiving meal. Pumpkin can go savory or sweet (or straddle the line between the two): served as a vegetable dish, roasted with garlic, onions, and savory herbs...or in the traditional pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake, doughnuts, even ice cream. 

It's said that Columbus brought pumpkin back to Spain from the New World, introducing this (among many other food items) into the European culinary vernacular. Like so many other vegetables and fruits that have become integral to Italian cooking, pumpkin landed on the Italian peninsula with Spanish and Portuguese Jews after the Inquisition. Venice, the city that invented the word ghetto (stemming from gettare, to throw or toss aside) to describe the neighborhoods where Jews were "thrown out", also gave rise to numerous dishes that include pumpkin, and the Jewish population of Mantua is often credited with creating the much-loved ravioli con la zucca. In the Jewish-Italian tradition, pumpkin pastas often combine savory and sweet elements. 
Ravioli are stuffed with a pumpkin puree and are served with sage and butter sauce, and topped either with parmigiano (savory) or crumbled amaretti cookies (sweet) -- and sometimes with mostarda di Cremona, from the town of Cremona -- candied fruit in a mustard-flavored syrup that accents the sweetness of the pumpkin filling. 

Any way you slice it, these pumpkin dishes are of a northern Italian bent. But pumpkin is also popular in Rome, where the country's largest Jewish population resides. I often purchased chunks of zucca gialla at the market in Campo de' Fiori, instructing my "guy" Claudio to cut me the perfect size slice for what I was making. Sometimes the pumpkin would get roasted, or thinly sliced and grilled. 
Sometimes I would turn the pumpkin into a warming risotto, like they often do in the Veneto in colder months. Sometimes I would also buy the zucchine flowers. A favorite Roman antipasto is fiori di zucca fritti, stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, and battered and fried, found in every pizzeria worth its sale in Rome. I'd often prepare them stuffed with an herbed ricotta and goat cheese mixture, topped with a butter and herb sauce. I've done my fair share of cooking with pumpkin products.

One of my favorite dishes to make is a simple pasta dish. I often taught it during my autumn and winter cooking classes in Rome, and it's remained a favorite of mine since I started cooking professionally. The sous chef at San Domenico NY once made a similar version as a special on the menu. I remember loving it, and over the years I tweaked it and made it my own. I like to think it's something that's a little bit Roman, a little bit northern Italian and Italian-Jewish, a little bit New York, a little bit New World. A little bit like me -- at heart, anyway.


3-4 TBS extra-virgin olive oil
4 TBS. unsalted butter
1 clove garlic
1 small-medium-sized butternut squash or other creamy pumpkin variety
8 oz. heavy cream
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lb. ziti, bombolotti, or short pasta of choice
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano (for the Roman touch) or parmigiano reggiano
Fresh thyme or chiffonade of basil

- Bring a large pot of water and one medium pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, add a generous dash of salt to the water.

- Peel the squash and/or pumpkin and cut into 1-2-inch dice.

- Boil squash in large pot of boiling water until tender but not falling apart, about 15 minutes. Drain...OR roast the pumpkin on a sheet pan in the oven, tossed with olive oil and salt and pepper, until tender, 30 minutes or so.

- Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add the oil and butter together, until bubbling. Add garlic clove (whole) and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

- Add squash/pumpkin and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes. Turn down heat and cook covered for another 10 minutes.

- Add cream and cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring. The squash/pumpkin flesh should break down into a chunky sauce.

- Cook the pasta until tender but firm, al dente.

- Remove pasta from the water with tongs, or drain in a colander and add it to the pan.

- Turn pasta to coat, add the pecorino, and turn to mix thoroughly. Add fresh thyme and/or basil and serve.