October 19, 2009

Pumpkin Pasta

In past posts, I have alluded to my opinion that too many Americans are disconnected from the idea of seasonal and traditional eating. This definitely doesn’t hold true during October and November, however, when we see bright, orange pumpkins piled high at markets and on every doorstep, symbolizing the start of a cool, colorful season. The popularity of the pumpkin is likely due to its versatility in cooking and decorating, as well as its fundamental role in America’s cultural history.

I learned something new while I was researching the pumpkin’s history. Pumpkin carving evolved from the Celtic tradition of All Hallows’ eve, but it wasn’t pumpkins that were being carved (they are native to the Americas): turnips and rutabagas were hollowed out and transformed into skeleton heads. Personally, I think pumpkins are much more fun.

References to pumpkin date back hundreds of years; it was an important food for Native Americans and was primarily eaten roasted or dried. When the earliest settlers arrived, they readily embraced the pumpkin’s culinary uses. In fact, the origin of the pumpkin pie is thought to be a result of the colonists slicing off the pumpkin top; removing the seeds; filling it with milk, spices and honey; and baking it in hot ashes. The sweet, versatile pumpkin was also used in side dishes, in soups, and even to make beer. Pumpkin beer is very popular during the fall months in New England and I have definitely been enjoying my share of it.

The widespread availability this time of year inspires me to take advantage of fresh pumpkins and feature them in my fall cooking endeavors. I plan to eat and cook plenty of pumpkin baked goods in the near future, so I opted for an entirely different approach, inspired by the delicious pumpkin raviolis of Italy.

Pumpkins can readily be cooked and pureed or mashed to produce a velvety, creamy texture, perfect for a delicate sauce. Below you will find my recipe for a very satisfying fall pumpkin pasta dish. The sweet, subtle flavors of pumpkin are accented with the familiar tastes of autumn with the addition of sage and nutmeg. The result is a flavorful, rich pasta sauce that is balanced nicely with parmesan, sautéed kale and my personal favorite, crunchy pecans.

Contrary to what one might think, the recipe is considerably nutritious: the pumpkin provides a host of vitamins A and C, potassium, folate and fiber and it loans a creamy texture to the sauce without the addition of heavy cream or cheese. The sauce in itself is delicious and could also be used as an accompaniment to other types of pasta, grains, sautéed greens, or even seafood.

Don’t forget to make use of the pumpkin seeds, a great source of omega-3’s and -6’s. My favorite way is to roast them at 350 degrees with a bit of olive oil, salt and chili powder until they are fragrant and toasted, about 15 minutes.

Lesley's Pumpkin Pasta

1 lb pasta shells or penne
3-4 lb fresh sugar pumpkin, cut into large pieces, seeds scooped out
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large bunch kale, rinsed and sliced
¼ cup flour
2 cups organic milk
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped finely (or 1 ½ teaspoons dried)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup pecan halves, coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook pasta until not quite al dente (about 2 minutes less than package instructions). Drain, rinse with cool water, and set aside.

2. Insert a steamer into a large pot and fill with several inches of water. Bring to a boil, add pumpkin pieces and cover tightly. Reduce heat to medium-low and allow to steam for 30-45 minutes, until inner flesh is soft. Remove from pot and to cool.

3. Meanwhile, In a large saucepan, melt ½ tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; stir until soft, about 6 minutes. Add kale and sauté until wilted (it may have to be done in batches). Remove from heat, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

4. Remove skin and any stringy flesh from pumpkin. Melt remaining butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add pumpkin pieces and sauté 5 minutes. With a fork or potato masher, mash pumpkin until smooth and no chunks remain. Sprinkle with flour; stir well and cook 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in milk and cook, stirring frequently until mixture thickens, 8-10 minutes. Whisk in nutmeg, sage, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Remove from heat and season to taste.

5. Arrange sautéed kale on the bottom of a 9x13 inch casserole dish. Top with cooked pasta and pour pumpkin sauce over pasta, spreading evenly. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and pecans. Bake until heated through and pecans are toasted and fragrant, about 15 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.


  1. yay, thanks for the bit of history! pumpkin seeds with the chili is a new idea, I like it! and of course, your dish looks amazing. thanks!

  2. Cooked this pasta and it was delicious!! I stirred the kale mixture in (I live with two men and green veggies need to be cleverly hidden) and the recipe was great with a buttery unoaked Chardonnay. Thanks for the great dinner idea - anything pumpkin is fine with me!

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