Smoky Braised Mexican Pumpkin With Seared White Onion

Try this unique way to serve pumpkin -- as a side dish instead of a sweet.

By Rick Bayless

Calabaza, the great big tan or greenish (not Jack-o-lantern orange) pumpkin, knows its homeland to be Mexico. Though its flesh and seeds supplied nourishment to the locals for millenia, not too many savory calabaza recipes show up in cookbooks or restaurants or on special-occasion tables. Yet heavy slices hacked from big pumpkins always are for sale in my local Mexican grocery.

Perhaps pumpkin has been relegated to the indigenous backroom stews that trace their history directly to times before the Spaniards brought “civilization” to Mexico. I like pumpkins texture and flavor, especially when braised with the classic Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa and pork. Add a scoop of fried beans or red rice and hot corn tortillas, and you’ve got a great meal.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa (see below)
  • 3 to 6 (1/4 to 1/2 ounce) stemmed, dried chipotle chiles (or canned chipotle chilies en adobo)
  • 3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • 8 ounces (about 5 medium) tomatillos, husked and rinsed
  • 12 ounces (2 medium-small round or 4 to 5 plum) ripe tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or rich-flavored lard
  • 1/2 pound lean boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (optional)
  • 1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth or water
  • Salt, about 1 teaspoon
  • Sugar, about 1/4 teaspoon
  • 4 cups peeled, seeded and cubed (3/4-inch pieces) fresh pumpkin, preferably from a 1 1/2-pound wedge cut from a tan or green Mexican pumpkin (a 2-pound pie pumpkin will give you about the right amount, too)

    How to make it 

  • 1

    For dried chiles, toast them on an ungreased griddle or skillet over medium heat, turning regularly and pressing flat with a spatula, until very aromatic, about 30 seconds. In a small bowl, cover the chiles with hot water and let rehydrate 30 minutes, stirring frequently to ensure even soaking. Drain and discard the water. (Canned chiles need only be removed from their canning sauce.)

  • 2

    While chiles are soaking, roast the unpeeled garlic on the griddle or skillet, turning occasionally, until soft (they will blacken in spots), about 15 minutes; cool and peel. Roast the tomatillos on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened on one side, about 5 minutes, then flip and roast the other side. (For the sake of efficiency, you can roast the tomatoes from step 1 for the braising sauce while you’re roasting the tomatillos.)

  • 3

    Scrape the tomatillos (and their juices), rehydrated or canned chiles and garlic into a food processor or blender, and process to a rather fine-textured puree. Transfer to a bowl and stir in enough water (3 to 4 tablespoons) to give the salsa a medium consistency.

    Braising Sauce 


  • 1

    Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet 4 inches below a very hot broiler until blackened on one side, about 6 minutes, then flip and roast the other side. Cool, then peel and roughly chop, collecting any juices with the tomatoes.

  • 2

    In a large (10- to 12-inch) heavy skillet, heat the oil or lard over medium-high. If you’re using the cubed pork, fry it now, turning and scraping up bits of browned meat, until nicely golden all over, about 10 minutes; scrape into a small bowl, leaving behind as much oil as possible.

  • 3

    In the same skillet, fry the onion, stirring regularly, until well browned, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatillo salsa and the tomatoes to the skillet, stir for several minutes as it all thickens and reduces, then stir in the broth or water. Taste and season with salt and sugar.

  • 4

    Finishing the dish. Turn on the oven to 350°F. Place the pumpkin cubes in an ovenproof baking/serving dish just big enough to hold them in about an inch-thick layer (a 9 x 9-inch Pyrex dish works well). Mix in the browned pork if using it. Pour the sauce over everything, cover with foil or a lid and bake until the pumpkin is tender, 40 to 45 minutes.

  • 5

    Uncover, raise the oven temperature to 400°F, bake until the sauce has reduced a little and the top is crusty, about 15 minutes longer, and it’s ready to carry to the table.

Advance preparation: The braising sauce can be prepared through step 2 several days in advance; cover and refrigerate. The dish can be baked for 40 or 45 minutes, cooled and refrigerated; finish baking just before serving at 400 degrees for 15 or 20 minutes.

Variations and improvisations: You can, of course, make this dish with other pumpkins and squash: Butternut squash offers a dense texture and rich taste; hubbard is lighter with a soft texture, pie pumpkins are very good all around–use what you can get your hands on. Also, to add a green balance of flavor, stir in 1 to 1 1/2 cups of sliced chard, cleaned lamb’s quarters (quelites) or amaranth greens (quintoniles) before baking.

Serves 4 as a small entree, 6 as a hearty side dish

For more pumpkin recipes from Rick Bayless, check out:
Chilled Peanuts and Pumpkin Seeds
Avocado-Mango Salad with Fresh (or Blue) Cheese, Bacon and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Chicken in Pueblan Green Pumpkin Seed Sauce

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