An Italian Cook Has Tricks for Dining Treats Using the Great American Pumpkin

updated 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Pumpkins: This fall Americans will purchase tens of millions of the things. Most of them will be turned into outsize candle holders complete with lopsided jack-o'-lantern grins. Sometime after the last post-Halloween tummy ache has subsided, the rotting orange globes on front porches will finally be thrown into the garbage. This seems a sad fate for this cheery medicine ball of a vegetable (technically a fruit), which has found a bigger place in America's heart than in its stomach. Sure, there are traditionalists who will scoop out the pumpkin's pulpy innards and produce a pie or two for Thanksgiving. And in recent years pumpkins have even gotten into muffins, mousses and puddings. But it has been several generations since Americans have acknowledged the pumpkin as the wonderfully versatile foodstuff it is.

Marina Tudisco is here to change all that. The Julia Child of Sicily, Tudisco runs her own cooking school in Catania, has developed her own TV show and appears regularly in Italian gourmet magazines. For the second straight year, Tudisco, 49, has come to the New World for a five-week stint as a guest instructor in cooking. One of Tudisco's goals is to introduce Americans to new ways to savor pumpkin: pumpkin and rice, fragrant with grated cheese; pumpkin in a sauce, piquant with wine vinegar; and pumpkin salad, redolent of garlic and olive oil. "People are surprised, especially with the risotto," says Tudisco, who teaches at cooking schools and shops in the New York area and New England, "but the pumpkin salad is the biggest hit. Everybody likes it."

When Helen Brody, operations director of Connecticut's upscale Hay Day specialty food stores, asked Tudisco to bring seasonal ideas for her classes last fall, the Italian cook trotted out her native pumpkin specialties. "In Italy we cook what is fresh," says Tudisco. "At this time of year, I put pumpkin in everything—minestrone, ravioli and soufflés." Pumpkin grows freely in Sicily and is often used as a substitute for meat. "The pumpkin is not a noble vegetable," admits Tudisco. "You won't find it in restaurants in Italy, but you will find it in people's homes."

Called zucca in Italy, pumpkin comes in a variety of sizes and shapes. It is best to cook with the small sugar pumpkin. "The jack-o'-lantern is more firm to the bite," says Tudisco of the larger Halloween favorite, "but the recipes come out just the same." With the skin peeled off, pumpkin can be fried, steamed or boiled, like its relatives in the squash family. To remove the flesh Tudisco recommends splitting the pumpkin in half, scooping out the stringy bits and the seeds (save them to roast later), then baking the pieces, cut side down, on a baking sheet for half an hour, or until tender.

Fond as she is of pumpkin, Tudisco knows where to draw the line. "It goes well with roasted pork, turkey and meat loaf, but I would never serve it with fish." Squash that notion.

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