Smashing Pumpkins

Autumn is my favorite season and pumpkins are my favorite part of fall.  I blame it on my New England roots but there is something about the weather changing from warm and humid to cool and crisp that excites me. Add in colorful foliage, the necessity to put on an extra layer when you venture outside, and the feeling of starting afresh and it is no wonder I look forward to this time of year.  I know fall has really arrived when Starbucks rolls out their pumpkin spice latte, my perennial favorite drink which, being overseas, I had forgotten about, until I was reminded of their reintroduction by a stateside friend.  (We do not have Starbucks or anything remotely resembling it here).  The cooler fall weather also means I can comfortably crank up the oven to bake goodies filled with the best apples, pumpkins and spices of the season.  Well, that was until we arrived in Albania.

The first issue with pumpkins in Albania is the actual word.  Kungull is Albanian for pumpkin. And squash as in winter squash.  And squash as in zucchini.  And any other gourd like vegetable.  Talk about the confusion this raises when ordering what you think is a pumpkin, squash, or zucchini item from a restaurant menu. After anticipating risottos with sugar pumpkin or squash soups only to have them arrive at the table filled with zucchini I’ve learned to ask for clarification prior to placing my order.  When the response is green kungull I know that the vegetable in question is actually zucchini and will adjust my order accordingly (not that I have anything against zucchini; rather it is just not the same thing as pumpkin or winter squash).

As far as I can tell, sugar pumpkins, my staple for everything from jack-o-lanterns to pies, breads, and donuts, are non-existent in Albania. Or, at least, I have been unable to readily locate them in any market, grocery store, or farmer’s roadside stand.  When asked, people have directed me to squashes of various shapes, sizes, and colors –American kids use the white squashes as “ghost” pumpkins at Halloween– but none even come close to a good old American pumpkin.  (I do have a lead on the possibility of some pumpkins being grown in the Northern Albania town of Kukes by the cousin of one of the nannies for a fellow American family here in Tirana.  Yes, I’m pursuing this but I’m trying not to get my hopes up).  I am fortunate, however, to have a small- and ever dwindling- stash of canned pumpkin imported from the United States via a military cargo plane, but I will be lucky if this supply carries me over through Thanksgiving.

Last week I found two orange looking squashes that had more of a resemblance to pumpkins than anything I had previously found here.  I took them home but lesson learned- just because it looks like a pumpkin does not mean it tastes like a pumpkin!  I’ve tried substituting these counterfeit pumpkins for the real thing with mixed results. Sometimes it works out and other times even the most tried and true recipe results in a culinary disaster.  As with everything else in this country, even creating pumpkin out of a squash is an ordeal that isn’t for the faint of heart.
First one must go to the market and find an actual squash-pumpkin. Just because they sold them yesterday doesn’t mean they are in stock today. Nor does it mean they will be restocked this year. If you are fortunate enough to find one, there isn’t any guarantee that it will even remotely resemble or taste like the one you saw yesterday or bought on your previous visit.  All of the squashes I’ve found here have been large; so large that their hefty weight is intimidating.  Once I get the monster home, and I had better not be walking on that day- the real fun begins.
We received a cleaving knife as a gift when we got married but I had never used it and only reluctantly brought it overseas with us.  Now I’m so glad I did. There isn’t any simple opening of a can of Libby’s in the Brown’s Albanian kitchen.  After washing the the squash I have to stand on a stool (in order to get enough height) and whack the squash until it splits in two.  Then I do it again and again, repeating the process until I have manageable pieces.  If I am going to roast the squash to try to bring out any of its sweetness, I will place the pieces on a cookie sheet and bake them in the oven. If I’m going to boil them, I proceed to peel the tough skin off of each piece  A vegetable peeler isn’t quite sharp enough for this task yet a knife is a bit unwieldy.  (I will only attempt to break down a squash when Glenn is home since I am sure that it is only a matter of time before an emergency room visit becomes necessary).  Whatever the cooking method, once it is cooled it is time for the vegetable to be pureed.  Thanks to my trusty stick blender, this is by far the easiest step in this entire process.

After an hour or two of work, the squash is ready to be pumpkinized with whatever spices, seasonings, or sweetener will bring it closer to its much sought after cousin.  This is always a process of trial and error.  Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I don’t.  Usually by the time I reach this point in the preparation process I am ready to call it quits for the day. When that happens I bag up my puree and stash it in the freezer until the next craving for pumpkin arises.  Then I only have to defrost my stash and being cooking. If I close my eyes and pretend really hard, I can imagine that it is just like opening a can of pumpkin puree.  Or not………………….

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