Pumpkins, The Greek Way


Photos by Aglaia Kremezi

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Greek home cooks used a watery, calcium chloride solution to make crunchy pumpkin and other fruit preserves long before Ferran Adria and Jose Andres exploited the chemical in their famous spherification technique, which they use to create multicolored fruit and vegetable "pearls" or spectacular "olive bonbons" from olive paste.

"Place a piece of Calcium Hydroxide (the stuff one uses to make slaked lime and whitewash) in a large bowl and fill with water; stir a couple of times and let set. Use just the liquid to macerate the fruit in, discarding the solids at the bottom," the old recipes instructed. I rejected the idea of using even a tiny quantity of the caustic stuff, which also doubles as the base for the disinfecting whitewash on island houses. Furthermore, I found no Greek recipe that specified the safe amount needed, and had to rely on my late mother-in-law and other home cooks for instructions--my mother didn't make spoon sweets, so she was never an available source of information.

So I never considered testing recipes for the superb whole apricot preserves my mother-in-law made each summer, or the fragrant green fig preserves, and certainly not kolokytha rossoli (pumpkin preserves). Pumpkin and other fruit become mushy when simmered in syrup even briefly, so there is no point in trying to make them into preserves without the calcium bath. I believed that the traditional technique was a tad poisonous, so I didn't even describe it in any of my books.

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How was I to know that our grandmothers' ways were evolving into molecular gastronomy? Now that the course has been cleared by such luminaries, I can at last give you the recipe for kolokytha rossoli, the easiest of the spoon sweets that you can make even with leftover decorative pumpkins, perhaps to offer to your friends as a home-made, edible present. If you happen to have the cutter that makes fusilli-like pieces, the pumpkin preserves will present spectacularly, but simply dicing the bright orange flesh will result in equally irresistible crunchy chunks.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Being one of the few abundant fall vegetables, pumpkins and all kinds of squash are traditionally used for a variety of savory and sweet dishes: in Kea the local round green squash is boiled and served as salad, dressed simply with vinegar, fruity olive oil, and plenty of chopped garlic. I often prefer a more complex and colorful fall salad of olive-oil rubbed, roasted pumpkin cubes, mixed with spinach or arugula leaves, crumbled feta, pine nuts, and a vinaigrette dressing.

In many parts of the country thin slices of pumpkin or squash are dredged in flour or dipped in batter and fried, often served as an appetizer with garlic sauce or tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber sauce), much like zucchini and eggplants in the summer. Lebanese chef and food writer Anissa Helou recently gave me a taste of her pumpkin "hummus" (or tahini babaganoush) that she told me she learned from the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani.

Various pies are by far the most popular fall pumpkin dishes in Central and Northern Greece, as well as on Chios and Lesvos islands. Some of these pies linger between sweet and savory and probably have ancient roots, as the combination of aged cheese and raisins, occasionally even olive-oil-sautéed onions with sugar, cinnamon, and cloves, suggest.

These, as all pies, are best with home rolled phyllo pastry, but even with commercial frozen phyllo and--God forbid--canned pumpkin, my version of the Lesvos kolokythopita is simply delicious! I made it a couple of times for friends' Thanksgiving dinners in tiny, ill-equipped New York kitchens, and it turned out luscious every time, with complex and irresistible multi-layered flavors. Inspired by the traditional savory pies of Epirus, in Greece's northwestern corner, I make a leek and pumpkin tart with walnuts, spiked with feta and kopanisti--a very sharp fermented cheese.