Caravaggio, Still Life with Fruit, c. 1603, oil on canvas. Denver Art Museum.
Building on my previous post about eating pumpkins, I thought I would go back further in time. Pumpkins, a member of the cucurbit genus, are native to North America. They have been consumed for thousands of years by indigenous peoples—they ate the pumpkin flesh, the seeds, and even blossoms.
After Columbus reached the Americas, pumpkins arrived in Europe. Some of the first images of cucurbits in Europe are found at the Villa Farnesina in Rome, a beautiful Renaissance gem that was decorated by Raphael and his pupils in the second decade of the sixteenth century. Other artists, like Caravaggio, included pumpkins in still-life paintings, like the one you see above.
Renaissance Europeans also began to cook with pumpkin. One recipe, found in Bartolomeo Scappi’s Opera, published in 1580, includes a recipe for a tourte of domestic pumpkin, which combines ricotta cheese, eggs, sugar, pepper and cinnamon that is then poured into a tourte shell, covered with an upper shell, baked, and finally glazed with sugar and rosewater. (Scappi, Book V. 106) This recipe sounds suspiciously like a precursor to our “modern” versions of pumpkin pie!
Pumpkin is often found in sweet foods, but it is equally tasty in savoury pasta dishes. In the Northern Italian town of Mantua, for example, raviolis are filled with a mixture of pumpkin, amaretti, and mostarda (a spicy condiment of fruit preserved in sugar syrup and mustard oil). I opted for a simpler pumpkin pasta recipe when I had some friends over for supper recently. This recipe has a creamy pumpkin sauce covering ziti noodles, peppered with chunks of sausage and fresh sage leaves. It was delicious, and a perfect way to consume seasonal produce in a slightly different way!
Pumpkin Pasta Bake
1 pound ziti or rigatoni noodles, cooked to al dente
1 pound sausage meat (I used a combination of mild Italian and British bangers)
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
6-8 sage leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
pinch of cinnamon
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 of a garlic and herb cream cheese spread (i.e. Boursin)
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup cream
15 oz can pumpkin puree (approx. 2 cups of pumpkin)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 350F.
2. Brown the sausage in a pan over medium high heat until the sausage is no longer pink. Break up larger chunks as you cook.
3. In the same pan, add the onion, and garlic. Cook until the onion is soft and translucent, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the wine, and then the sage leaves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the wine has reduced by half.
5. Add the chicken stock, cream, and Boursin cheese. Stir in the pumpkin puree. Mix until everything is incorporated. You can also add some extra grated Parmesan to the sauce for a more cheesy flavour.
5. Transfer to a casserole dish with the pasta. Mix until combined.
6. Top with Parmesan cheese. Bake for 25-35 minutes until bubbly.
7. Garnish with parsley (or fried sage) and enjoy with a nice glass of white wine!