As you toss your spent jack-o'-lantern into the trash -- or better yet, onto the compost pile -- be aware that you're discarding something our forebears considered valuable.
Just as they cooked every part of the pig, from the knuckles to the snout, they also let no part of the pumpkin go unused. Once they had scooped the pulp from the pumpkin, they quickly found uses for the shell.
In "I Hear America Cooking," a historical cookbook, Betty Fussell argues that the pumpkin was the first American casserole. Our ancestors not only ate the contents but also used the shell to hold -- and flavor -- ingredients placed inside it.
Pumpkins were being grown by native people when European explorers arrived on the continent. Many American Indians relied on pumpkins and other squash as a central part of their diet, along with corn and beans. In the interests of practicality and efficiency, they found a variety of uses for the seeds, meat and shell of a pumpkin.
Seeds could be ground for oil. The flesh could be dried to be eaten later. And the shell could be transformed into a cooking vessel. Cookbooks from the early 19th century make clear that settlers quickly learned the multidimensional uses of pumpkins, too.
Fussell offers a recipe for a pumpkin shell stew that evolved from this tradition, although she concedes that the pumpkins at our disposal today are different than those used for thousands of years before European settlement. The large field pumpkins marketed through the Halloween and Thanksgiving season are engineered for their size, not for the flavor and texture of their meat.
For that reason, she suggests borrowing the content of a small sugar pumpkin and using the shell of a field pumpkin for the casserole. This isn't the sort of thrifty, pragmatic approach that native cooks would have taken in the day when a pumpkin-shell casserole was baked in a heated-stone pit, but it does offer a glimpse into the utility of pumpkins before they became jack-o-lanterns.
Pumpkin Shell Stew
1 large field pumpkin (10-12 pounds)
1 small sugar pumpkin (2-3 pounds)
8 chicken legs or thighs
2 tablespoons each olive oil and butter
3 cups sliced onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups hot chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon thyme
pinch of saffron
1 tablespoon ground chili
salt and black pepper
4 large ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 cup pumpkin seeds, roasted and salted
4 ears fresh corn, kernels cut off
2 cups sour cream
Cut the top from the large pumpkin, about a third of the way down. Scoop out the seeds and stringy fibers, put the pumpkin on a sturdy oven-proof platter, and warm it slowly in a 250-degree oven. Cut the small pumpkin into quarters; remove seeds and stringy fiber. Peel off outer rind with a sharp knife and cut pumpkin meat into 1-inch cubes.
In a large casserole, brown chicken pieces in hot oil and butter. Lower heat and add onions and garlic, cooking them until golden. Add hot chicken broth and seasonings. Bring to a simmer and barely simmer for 15 minutes.
Add pumpkin, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds and simmer at least 15 minutes more.
Add corn and ladle the stew into the heated pumpkin shell. Bake 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve stew from the shell with a sauceboat of sour cream.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.