The best Italian pumpkin is to be found in the Mantova in the North of the country, about halfway between Milan and Venice and just above the super food cities of Parma and Modena. This is where the Alps tumble down onto the wide Padana plain, and the climatic conditions are clearly just so for growing pumpkin. Ravioli di Zucca is the must eat dish of Mantova, the pumpkin filling intense and sticky inside satiny home made pasta served in butter and sage. Kind and fortifying food for the cooler months.
A couple of years ago I read an article on Roman food by a favourite old food writer of mine, and remember feeling mildly indignant about her presenting baked pumpkin as a classic Roman dish. The large bright orange pumpkin sold around the Roman markets is occasionally used in the kitchen but is predominately valued as excellent pig feed. These garish orange Zucca Napoletana are very large, watery and sort of squashy, a bit like your classic Halloween lantern type pumpkin, which is probably why Americans started making lanterns with them in the first place. Romans themselves say disparagingly ‘non valgono niente’ ‘they are not worth anything’. At the Farmer’s Markets around Rome you will find better varieties of pumpkin, dark skinned ones with rich golden flesh; I even found a nice butternut at the Citta del’altra Economia Sunday market recently. The quite beautiful pumpkin in the photo – Mantovana – was found at the Testaccio market.
The Northern Italians really understand Risotto as well, and the wonderful rice variety Vialone Nano is also grown around Mantova. When it comes to risotto my rule of thumb in Italy is never south of Bologna – it’s nasty to make generalizations but southern Italians are prone to be lazy and take shortcuts, while northerners use plenty of butter, the best quality Vialone Nano or Carnaroli rice and take the time to stir.
As risotto is an almost one flavor dish a home made chicken or veal stock is the basis to a rich satisfying result. Throw a few pieces of chicken or a carcass into a pot with an onion, carrot, stick of celery and a couple of peppercorns, cover with 2 litres of water, bring to the boil and let simmer for a couple of hours.
While the stock is simmering cut and roast diced pumpkin in the oven with a couple of cloves of garlic, some rosemary, salt and extra virgin olive oil. The roasting accentuates the flavor of the pumpkin, bringing out all the sweet nuttiness.
Risotto di Zucca Pumpkin Risotto
300 g rice – Vialone Nano, Carnaroli o Arborio
1.5 litres chicken stock
Extra virgin olive oil
400 g blue skinned or butternut pumpkin – diced
2 cloves garlic
1 medium brown onion
50 g pancetta (optional)
100 g parmigiano or grana padano
50 g butter
Salt and pepper
Dice pumpkin, toss in olive oil and salt and place in a 200C oven to roast for approx 30 minutes.
Finely dice onion and fry off (with a little pancetta) in olive oil in a good large heavy based saucepan. Once onion has softened add a clove of squashed garlic and the rice to the pan. Lightly fry off or toast the rice, and then add half a cup of white wine to deglaze the pan. Begin adding the warm stock ladle by ladle, stirring with a large wooden spoon all the time. Move the rice around the pan so that it doesn’t stick, and so that it all gets the same access to heat and stock. About three quarters of the way through the cooking process add the roasted pumpkin to the risotto and mix well as it continues to cook.
The final moments in the cooking process are key. Once the rice has cooked to al dente it is time to finish the risotto. Add a couple more ladles of stock so that the rice mixture is nice and liquid and then add the butter. Stir well so that the liquid and butter amalgamate and take off the heat. Add parmigiano freshly grated and salt and pepper to taste. The kids will love it, a brilliant way to get all those wonderful orange nutrients onto the table.