libyan pumpkin spread and jamaican pumpkin curry, with lucinda scala quinn
I’M MAD ABOUT winter squash—about pumpkins—and so is my former “Martha Stewart Living” colleague Lucinda Scala Quinn, whom you may know as author of the “Mad Hungry” cookbooks, and a former host of the PBS series “Everyday Food,” and of her own “Mad Hungry” TV show. Recently we talked pumpkin recipes, including a Libyan spread or dip she’s recently discovered in her travels called chershi (above), and some Jamaican-style curry and soup.
Lucinda Scala Quinn has written five cookbooks with inspirations as diverse as Jamaican to rustic Italian, but whatever the culinary tradition she’s writing and cooking in, her approach is always smart can-do meals—ideas developed to feed and please her family of five, including her three mad, hungry sons.
Read along as you listen to the Oct. 22, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win one of Lucinda’s cookbooks, your choice, at the very bottom of the page.
cooking with pumpkin, with lucinda scala quinn
Q. Welcome, Lucinda. Hello, old friend.
A. Hello Margaret. I am always happy to talk to you about food.
Q. Food, food, food.
A. Especially since you grow it. You grow it and I cook it.
Q. Yes, but I was so excited to hear that you actually have a rooftop garden, although not a vegetable garden exactly, but a rooftop garden in New York City, don’t you?
A. I do, and what’s amazing over the years… I always say I’m like a kindergarten gardener because it’s not my skill. I just kind of riff in a way, but what I have discovered over the years is what works and what can really augment my summer city cooking—which is amazing that like just cherry tomatoes, a bunch of herbs and some peppers and all of a sudden it seems like I can just change everything up by just adding a little bit of freshness.
And actually it made me really realize that if you just have a couple plants even on a fire escape, it lets you participate a little bit in the kind of edible gardening.
Q. Yes, and it does, as you say, it makes all the difference to have just those few things that really enliven … You and I, I think both still love beans, we both cook dried beans and make bean dishes and stuff, and just what you said, just those items you said can change up beans into something really special.
A. Yes. I mean just yesterday I had black beans and I went out because I got a bunch of chives, some oregano, a pepper and tomato, and minced them all together and cooked them down almost into a paste and then stirred that into the black beans that were already cooked. And that was all just from what I have in the little garden, in this tiny little garden.
Q. Yes. So pumpkin, or squash: Before we get into particular kind of winter squash recipes and ideas that I want to get from you, I wanted to ask sort of some basics and maybe we’ll have a healthy disagreement about some of these things. But what are some of your favorite varieties, whether if you’re going to the market or the farmer’s market or whatever. What are you looking for different uses? Like if you’re going to make a soup or if you’re going to make a pie or roast something.
A. I mean there again I feel like, and this is again coming from the cook who’s less familiar of varieties in the garden as much as kind of what’s there, and I know that the outside doesn’t portend on what’s on the inside. For me, I always know whether I’m getting… Well, first of all, I love calabaza, which is not even a pumpkin, right? It’s a squash.
Q. Well and all pumpkins are squash. I mean it’s weird like taxonomically. [Laughter.]
A. I feel like I should be asking you, but I mean, for instance, sugar pumpkin: I will tend to want to get the little sugar pumpkins when I’m making pie because I find that it’s a little denser, with beautiful color…
A. …and a little edge of sweetness. But then again, what I basically do once I get inside the pumpkin I have, regardless of what it is, I try to judge the level of liquid I’m going to end up with.
A. So I tend to do a lot of savory cooking with pumpkin—like I’ll make a stew, or I was thinking about a pumpkin gnocchi with a sage butter that I make all the time, which literally is like four ingredients. And depending on whether or not the pumpkin, once I’ve cooked it, it has a lot of moisture, I’ll just drain it because I don’t want too much moisture in the gnocchi, so in terms of varieties it’s often squash that’s stepping in for pumpkin.
Q. And you’re saying pumpkin sort of more generically—like it looks like a pumpkin. Yes. And so a great collector of pumpkin, as they say, germplasm or seeds—a guy whose collection became part of the Seed Savers Exchange years ago, Glenn Drowns [of Sand Hill Preservation Center] out in Iowa. We actually did a story in “Martha Stewart Living” about him. He collected all these heirloom varieties, and he told me years ago, he said, “They’re all squash, but …” [Laughter.] We think of some of them as pumpkins.
There are different species. And so, you know, the, we think of some of them like the zucchini, the summer squash, and some of the ‘Butternut,’ you know the winter squash, we think of those as squash more than some others. But anyway, the different species have different qualities and so on and so forth. So it’s O.K. to call them pumpkins or squash.
A. All pumpkins are squash, but not all squash are pumpkins.
Q. Yes, exactly. Something like that. [Laughter.] So, I’ve seen some of the great cooks who say I hate ‘Butternut’ for making soup. Well, I love ’Butternut’ [above] for making soup. Do you have any kind of “I wouldn’t do this,” or “I wouldn’t do that,” or you know?
A. You know, again, I feel like I don’t live necessarily near a farm stand. My marketing really has to do with if I get to the farmer’s market, or am I in the grocery store or the local deli, and what’s where. So first of all, I don’t subscribe pretty much to any of those hard and fast rules because I feel like I’ve spent my career refuting almost all of them.
A. I don’t always soak my beans, you know, talking about beans again.
Q. No, me neither.
A. You know, I don’t sear a roast on top of the stove before I cook it at a high heat because I feel like, why do I need to mess the stove? And of course there are, you know, the great magazine “Cook’s illustrated,” back in the day they made a whole business out of that.
So I never say I won’t do anything, and I will always experiment. And I was with a farmer recently who gave me a squash. I don’t even know what it is, a pumpkin. It was dark green, elongated; it was an heirloom. And when I opened it up I was stunned.
It was… I do not know what it was, but all I know is that I had that orange flesh. It was dense. It had that marvelous scent when you cut into squash, this—I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just like fresh life or something. I don’t know, it just smells so amazing.
And then, I just feel like either I’m roasting or like just today when I was making something, I was peeling the outside of the squash—this was a small little sugar pumpkin. And I was surprised at how thin the skin was.
So I don’t have, “I won’t do this,” or “I will do this.” I know that depending on what’s available and what I can get, I try to adapt, and I know that there are chefs who are particularly designing dishes around different kinds of pumpkin and squash. And I just kind of as a home cook do it the other way around.
Q. O.K., good. So you read your ingredient and say, what can I do to show off this particular vegetable?
A. I know that again, if I want to out of the box have something like super-tight that has some structure to it, then a ‘Butternut’ would be a choice that I would know would deliver for me.
Q. Yes, exactly.
A. Whereas you know, a calabaza might fall apart, have a little more fiber, a little bit more liquid, behave a little differently. And then you know, it would be actually really fun to do a tasting of a bunch of different ones and you know, cooked, just barely cooked with maybe just a touch of salt and really be able to taste all the different styles.
Q. Yes. And some are chestnut-y, and sweeter, and some are finer-textured. They’re fabulous. But among your cookbooks I mentioned in the introduction, you focused on a number of different cuisines and within some of the more overall like the “Mad Hungry” books, there’s lots of different cuisines represented. But you’ve done like Jamaican and Italian. And did your family then have to like eat those cuisines every day for a year while you were working on those projects? [Laughter.]
A. Oh, they’ve had to. I mean, my career has been so long, I mean in, in what, like 31 years of the kids being around, whatever food project I’m working on, they always have had to do that. One time I did a … it depends on what it is. So they’re used to it and they like it. And the other day, one of the young men, which is what they are now, said, “I used to love it, because once you got onto something, you know, you were cooking regional Mexican food for five years, you were cooking the foods of the Mekong Delta for five or six years.”
And actually as we talk, I’m in my office with my, all of my cookbooks, and I have such a love for them because I have just learned so much and continue to learn so much and go to different sections for different things.
And if a new cookbook is coming in here, it’s really going to have to earn its place on the shelf because there are so many that I’m probably going to take one out, you know?
And so my family has been incredibly adventurous. They’re also brutally honest. And as you know, nowadays I don’t just do the books that I’m writing. Like, I will pitch stories to magazines and do stories and as you know, being on the other side, you know I will pitch a lot of ideas and they’ll come back and it will boil down to what maybe somebody else is choosing.
And then I’m sitting here making the recipe, you know, four or five or six times to get it right, so that it has all of those elements and that it tastes delicious—that there’s not too many ingredients, that it’s doable for whoever’s reading the recipe. And sometimes I just go, “I’m done, it’s right.”
And then, one of the family will be like, “No, I know you think it is, but it’s just not; you wouldn’t accept this.” And accepting this isn’t, like I said, making it fancy, making it complicated, making it … it’s just nailing that deliciousness, in a way that looks good and it makes a lot of sense. I’m really, I’m really happy that they’ve been on this adventure with me.
Q. So is that Jamaican-inspired pumpkin soup on your website that I found—and actually there’s a version that has the calls for a pig’s tail, but maybe we can skip that one because you know me, I’m not into the pig’s tail. [Laughter.]
A. That’s funny, because that was the very first book. That book also had goat’s head soup, and when we did an abridged copy for the U.S. audience we definitely didn’t include that one, either.
Q. Yes. But what about the one that’s the vegetable version? Tell me what goes into a pumpkin vegetable curry stew.
A. Well, it’s, oh the stew. I thought you meant the soup.
Q. Oh, sorry.
A. Yes, I thought you meant the pig’s tail. And actually the soup, I make the soup throughout the year probably, at least once a month. And I think, like in my neighborhood uptown sometimes I’ll see those calabaza pumpkins, and whenever I see them (and they are quite big, they’ll be sold in maybe like 2-pound chunks), I can see how beautiful and deep and orange they are.
But I learned the soup from Jamaicans in Jamaica. And it’s really interesting, the technique. It’s worthwhile mentioning, and you can do it vegetarian or not. But what I do is I’ll buy a couple of pounds of some kind of, a beef bone of some nature—and this is the part that you could leave out if you wanted to—but like a short rib or a shin or something like that and put it in a pot of water. Just straight water with about 2 pounds of pumpkin that’s been cubed.
And so you have the water and you have the bones or you could also use like a chicken back if you wanted to. And then then I cook that down, until the pumpkin dissolves and is easily mashed, and then suddenly you have this absolutely gorgeous orange broth. It’s like brothy—so this is not a pureed soup, and it’s very thick. And you take out the bones and the meat, and then to that add sprigs of fresh thyme, scallion and garlic. And you let that cook for about another 20 minutes.
And critical is a Scotch bonnet pepper, which is not diced, it’s whole. And that’s a whole other story about my obsession with those peppers. But if you leave them whole and you cook them in your soup, they let off the floral nature of the Scotch bonnet without it being that fierce bite.
Q. And not just the heat, right.
A. Really exciting flavor. And then, what I do is return any meat that might be cooked and shredded back into the pot. And then I always add something called spinners, which are like a Jamaican dumpling. And they’re so-called because you spin the dough between your palms of your hands right into the pot. So they’re kind of oblong, long and thin. And that’s literally like flour, water and salt. And, so you have this tremendously beautiful gold, deep orange soup. But then you have these little spinners floating throughout.
And then that pepper that I remove, it doesn’t leave too much heat behind again, but it leaves flavor behind, and I’ll put that on the table with a little pair of tweezers.
A. And then whoever wants can just squeeze that blazing heat into their soup, but they don’t have to.
Q. That’s sweet.
A. That recipe, which I adore, I make all of the time. But you were talking about the-
Q. Well then you have a pumpkin vegetable curry stew that I found as well.
A. So in Jamaica, there’s obviously a real tradition of Rastafarian cooking, which is 100 percent vegetarian. And often times, you know, even without some of the spices and stuff. So the pumpkin vegetable curry stew became a favorite.
And what I loved about it was that it was a hearty meal that my family enjoyed and asked for. And I would always try to sneak in these 100 percent vegetarian dishes that, you know, satisfied meat eaters, but were vegetarian, and this is one of them.
I should add that calabaza, that is such a ubiquitous vegetable down there that it’s used in many different ways, fritters to desserts and so forth, and so I think that’s why there are so many wonderful dishes.
But anyway, to just sort of briefly run through, you’re really just starting with about a pound of pumpkin that’s been peeled and chopped. And you’re cooking onion and garlic in oil. And then if you make your own curry powder, fine. I was just at this marvelous store in New York City called Kalustyan’s.
Q. Oh, I love it.
A. Which, if anybody’s listening-
Q. They have a website, too; I can give the link. People can order.
A. I like to go to markets in different cities that I’m in. But they have literally every spice under the sun, but they have an entire curry section where all these different curries are formulated for specific cuisines. And in fact they have a Jamaican curry, which tends to have its own specific flavor. But in any event, you have a curry powder, and into that onion and garlic mixture that’s been cooking for about a minute you’re just adding really some curry powder, cinnamon, ginger, salt and pepper. And here I also should mention that I would not ever really add that raw. I always cook off spices like that. Like I would add them to the fat and cook them off. I’m suspect when I see recipes where they’re just thrown into the liquid. And then to that I add tomatoes—2 tomatoes chopped.
And so I have sort of like a thick relish like base that is going to inform the flavor. So it’s going to be quite a concentrated flavor that’s going to inform the eventual stew. And then after that, what you’re doing is you add water to scrape up the bottom of the pan, because at that point you’ve got all kinds of nice flavor developing on the bottom of the pan, you know—like a fond it’s called literally. And it’s where those crystallization-caramelization, you know, just sort of almost burning. And then if you get the liquid in there and scrape it up, that’s where all your flavor is.
And going back to me satisfying meat eaters with vegetarian food. I really try to find ways to build deep flavor without meat when I’m cooking a vegetarian for this family.
Anyway, so the liquid that goes in there and you’ve got about, oh, about a half a cup to a cup of water and to that I then add the cut-up pumpkin, carrot, chopped potatoes. If I don’t have the potatoes, I don’t worry. And if I have a green banana, which is wonderful, I’ll put chunks of green banana in there, too. And then there again, a whole Scotch Bonnet pepper that I don’t pierce.
I just bring it up to a simmer and cook it until it starts to boil a little bit, cover it. And then I just cook it for about 20 minutes, stirring it a couple of times and remove that spicy pepper before I serve it.
And sometimes if I want to and I have it, I will add … there’s a couple variations I’ll do. I’ll add red peas—they call them red peas, but they’re really like red beans, little maybe a cup of red peas for a little more protein, and sometimes even if I have it, I’ll add some coconut milk.
Q. So in the name of time, I want to make sure to get a chance to ask you about your Mad Hungry, Mad Crazy [laughter]…. You have this crazy thing called a spurtle, your tool thing that you’re doing now. I want to have a minute for that, but when you went recently to the Middle East, you brought back … what pumpkin thing really got to you in your recent trip to Israel?
A. It was surprising for anybody who’s listening, who’s traveled, know that you sit down often to, I don’t know, half a dozen salads are put down in front of you in a little bowl.
Q. Yes, like a mezze, kind of.
A. We went to a Libyan restaurant in Jaffa, in Tel Aviv; the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv. And this was a Libyan spread, which is similar but very different also with its own identity, and in one dish was an orange sort of relish thing and I took a bite of it and it was just a like an eye-opener for me. I was like what is this? And then I did some research and discovered it with something called chershi, I believe I’m correctly saying it.
And when I got home and started playing around and I’ve used ‘Butternut,’ I’ve used calabaza, I’ve used sugar pumpkin. Literally you’re just cooking garlic and oil and cumin and coriander, putting your pumpkin in there with some hot pepper flakes and a little bit of water and cooking it until you mash it into however smooth or thick you want it, and the little olive oil on top and then you can just dip anything in there. You can make it a part of a mezze spread.
Q. So we’ll give the full at the bottom of the page so that people can try the chershi, or however we say the Libyan pumpkin spread.
A. It was an epiphany, I recommend that you try it.
Q. So tell me: What is the spurtle thing that you’re doing? What is this, I see you—like you’re even on QVC sometimes, and you have this tool. What is this crazy tool? It’s not a spatula.
A. This tool organically arrived in my life and transformed into a business actually. A spurtle literally is a 500-year-old tool from Scotland that was designed for oatmeal.
Now cut to the present time, where I happened to purchase one, an heirloom piece from a carver out West, and it became something I used all the time and I put it on my television set [in the former TV show studio] and I didn’t realize until people wrote in, “What is that tool, that elongated wooden spoon thing you keep using?”
So the carver sold it on our site for a year and then he said “Thank you, but no more because I can’t carve any faster.” And we made our own version out of bamboo, and it has become very popular, like a go-to kitchen tool to the point where we now have several varieties under Mad Hungry. It is, you know… you have to use it to know it is the best way to put it.
Q. I’ll show people pictures. It comes in… there’s different tools now and they come and silicone and the different woods and stuff.
A. We really expanded. It’s become a little cottage business, not so little. To the point where it’s permitted me to transition from a corporate job into a startup business, which is extraordinary.
Q. With your family.
A. Which has been fun and crazy.
Q. So Lucinda Scala Quinn, the queen of the pumpkin as well as the spurtle. [Laughter.] I’m so glad to speak to you again. Thanks for making the time Lucinda, and for the recipes.
A. So wonderful, good job. I can’t wait to get some gardening advice from you.
Q. O.K., I’m here.
chershi: a libyan/jewish pumpkin relish/spread/dip
By Lucinda Scala Quinn
Makes 3 cups
I HAVE USED multiple pumpkin and squash varieties, staying away from anything too watery. Serve as a part of a mezze spread, a side dish for beef or chicken, or as a dip with toasted pita, or sliced vegetable crudité.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, diced (a scant cup)
- 4-5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
- 1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper (or other ground hot red pepper)
- 3 cups pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cubed into about 1-inch pieces
- 1/3-1/2 cup water
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- Juice of half a lemon
1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Swirl in the olive oil. Add the onion. Sauté until it begins to soften, about 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic, continue to stir until it just begins to color, another minute.
2. Stir in the coriander, cumin, cinnamon, and toast for one minute. Add the salt and pumpkin. Combine with the spices and onions completely. Pour in the water, and scrape up the golden bits on the bottom of the pan, adding more water as needed. Cover and cook over medium low heat until the pumpkin is softened, about 10-15 minute. Stir the mixture a couple times, and add a touch of water if needed (depends on the water content of the pumpkin).
3. Using a potato masher or large fork, mash the pumpkin to a coarse mixture (or desired texture). Stir in the lemon juice (adding more for increased tanginess). Salt to taste.
4. Serve hot or cold. Will keep in the fridge for 5 days, and freezer for 6 months. If desired, drizzle over some honey and sprinkle on some cinnamon (not too much) before serving.
more pumpkin recipes and etc.
- Lucinda’s pumpkin vegetable curry stew
- Lucinda’s Jamaican pumpkin curry soup with “spinners”
- All Lucinda’s Mad Hungry tools on Amazon
- All Lucinda’s books on Amazon
- Lucinda’s Mad Hungry website
enter to win your choice of cookbook
I’LL BUY YOUR CHOICE of one of Lucinda Scala Quinn’s cookbooks for the winner of this giveaway. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:
What’s your go-to pumpkin/winter squash recipe or recipes? (I make crustless pumpkin pies–sort of like custards, really–that I admit to even eating for breakfast, and with sauteed garlic, onion, and red curry paste whip up easy pureed ‘Butternut’ soup that I then top with a little harissa when serving. I love winter squash of all kinds.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. A random winner will be selected after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 30, 2018. Good luck to all; U.S. and Canada only.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Oct. 22, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).