ay “pumpkin” to an American and they will answer: “pie.” Say “zucca” to an Italian and the first culinary association is: “ravioli.” Salt or sugar aside, the brightly orange globular fruit of this cucurbitaceous plant is featured prominently on Thanksgiving and harvest menus because it is agriculture’s last reminder of summer sunshine before we head into the winter months.
When pumpkins are ripe, the growing season is over and maybe that’s why they have such a bad rap in literary circles (a pumpkin is served as a cerebellum prosthesis for the phantom rider in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”) But in Italy, pumpkins were associated with social rejects centuries before the headless horseman. Because of their size and relatively low nutritional value, pumpkins were traditionally hollowed and used as a container for water, wine or salt used by drifters, riffraff and pilgrims.
A pumpkin vine flares with life and vigor when it makes fruit but faints into a miserable heap of wilted leaves immediately afterwards. For this reason, pumpkins represent short-lived happiness. In classic art you might see a pumpkin vine crawling up the leg of a woman as a sign of her sadness or heartache.
The pumpkins on display at Italy’s vegetable markets are slightly different than the ones we carve into Jack O’ Lanterns. They have a thicker layer of sweet flesh (great for cooking) and different skin color (either a waxy, opaque orange or sometimes with green blotches). Italy’s two most common species are the zucca marina di Chioggia (cucurbita maxima) and the zucca di Napoli (cucurbita moschata). Zucchini (cucurbita pepo) are a culinary cousin.
RECIPE Ravioli alla Zucca e Formaggio
For the ravioli filling:
• 500 grams (1 pound) pumpkin flesh
• 1 mozzarella, cut into tiny cubes
• 100 grams (4 ounces) freshly grated parmigiano cheese
• 100 grams (4 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
• 1/2 onion, finely chopped
• 1 garlic clove
• 1 glass white wine for cooking
• 1 potato, de-skinned
• 1 egg
• pinch of ground nutmeg
• olive oil, salt and ground pepper
For the pasta:
• 1/2 kilo (1 pound) of white flour
(grade 00 if you use Italian flour)
• 4 eggs
For the sauce:
• 1/3 stick butter
• 5-8 leaves of fresh sage
• 3-4 walnuts, cut into thin slivers
— Cook the pumpkin in the oven for 20 minutes or until tender and cut into smaller cubes after it has been baked. In a large frying pan with oil, cook the chopped onion and garlic clove (it should be removed later).
— Add the pumpkin cubes and wine and let simmer until the liquid has evaporated. Mash the pumpkin with a fork. Meanwhile, boil the potato until tender and mash with a fork.
— In a large bowl, add the cooled pumpkin, potato and three cheeses. Add ground pepper, nutmeg, salt and egg yolk. Mix vigorously until smooth.
You can buy pre-made sheets of pasta for ravioli or make your own. Form a mound with the flour on a wooden work surface and scoop out a well in the middle. Pour the eggs into the hole, add salt, and work the flour and eggs together until they become smooth dough (add a few drops of water if necessary). Knead the dough for 15 minutes until firm and elastic (if you don’t knead long enough the dough will tear easily). Now for the hard part: divide the dough into smaller balls and roll flat from the middle on a floured wooden surface (flipping and adding flour as necessary) until you have a thin sheet (the thickness of a one cent euro coin).
Arrange dabbles of the pumpkin filling (spaced about 5×5 cm) and blanket with a second sheet of pasta. Cut into ravioli and lightly press the edges together to lock in the filling. Fresh pasta should cook in salted boiling water no more than three to five minutes. Melt butter in a pan with the sage to use as a sauce. Top the ravioli with grated parmigiano cheese and walnut slivers before serving.
Wine Pairing: As a rule, I prefer to match regional dishes with wines made from grapes native to that region. But this autumn dish calls for an exception, in the form of Sicilian Chardonnay (a white wine with enough southern solar muscle to stand up to this buttery bonanza). Planeta’s Chardonnay Sicilia IGT from the Menfi region is ideal. The wine is rich and toasty (thanks to 10 months aged in oak) and underscores the cheese pumpkin filling. Crisp acidity keeps your mouth refreshed and ready for the next tasty morsel.