It's uncanny how smells bring you back. I hadn't planned on making my mom's pumpkin stew but it had been on my mind. For reasons I can't exactly remember, it had come up in the kitchen of the Journal's office a week or two earlier as I chatted with a couple of my favorite people with whom I happen to work.
My mom was a fabulous cook — talented, curious and dedicated — but she wasn't one for plating or presentation. Neither warranted the fuss. As far as she was concerned, a truly good meal was unassailable, no matter what it arrived at the table looking like. But, I told my co-workers, pumpkin stew was my mom's exception — the meal intended to be both delicious and a novelty centerpiece. Part of the reason she loved it, however, is that it was a bit of a trick — a no muss, salt-of-the-earth stew in disguise. Nothing more.
So I suppose that conversation was on my mind when I woke up on what would have been my mom's 75th birthday. She died of cancer last December, and the loss still feels fresh most days. It was raining and dark, and as I brewed some coffee and prepared for the day, I found myself missing her.
From my earliest memories, cooking was non-negotiable. My mom raised three boys and a girl, and she was fond of saying that she wouldn't send any them out in the world until they could cook for themselves. Growing up, each of us were responsible for dinner one night a week, no matter what it was. (To show us she was serious, she let one of my brothers cook Joe's Special every Wednesday for, like, four years.) So I always grew up cooking and came to love it. Over time, it became something I did to escape, an almost meditative retreat. And it became one of the passions my mom and I shared, something we talked about often and relished doing together.
Sipping coffee and watching the rain hit my deck that day, I decided to make pumpkin stew. The wonderful thing about this recipe is it's incredibly flexible. It works with beef, lamb or game. My mom sometimes made it as a complex tagine but I love it with a simple stew. When serving, you shave off some of the inside of the pumpkin, adding it to the stew for a layered, earthy and sweet flavor that tastes like a warm home on a rainy day.
And it's a delightfully fragrant dish. By the time you pull it out of the oven, your home will smell of browned lamb, caramelized onions and roast pumpkin. To me, it smells like childhood. Like my mom.
Lamb Pumpkin Stew
1 large pie pumpkin (or other cooking variety, between the size of a volleyball and a basketball)
1 ½ pounds lamb stew meat
2 medium onions, diced
2 large carrots, cut into chunks
3 celery stalks, sliced
3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup flour
2 bay leaves
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons anchovy paste
1 cup chicken or beef broth
½ cup red wine
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil
Liberally salt and pepper the stew meat, then dredge in flour. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the meat and brown it, a little at a time, careful not to crowd it. When the meat is thoroughly browned on all sides, remove it from heat and set it aside.
After all the meat is browned, add the garlic and chopped onion to the pan and cook until the onion is translucent, stirring consistently and scraping the pan. Meanwhile, mix the wine, tomato paste and anchovy paste together in a small cup. When the onions are browned, add the broth and bay leaves and return the meat to the pan. Pour the wine mixture over the top. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for about an hour.
Stir in the potatoes, carrots and celery. Bring the pot back to a simmer and cook 1 additional hour.
Meanwhile, clean your pumpkin. Wash its outside, cut off and set aside its top, and scoop out all the insides. When finished, brush the pumpkin's outside with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and place it in a sturdy baking dish. Salt and pepper the inside of the pumpkin, then fill it with stew. Cover it with the pumpkin top.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours or until the pumpkin is tender.
Serve with a loaf of your favorite warm bread. If possible, serve at the table, scraping a little bit of the pumpkin's insides out with each spoonful of stew.