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Food & Drink The great pumpkin

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Stew your caldo inside a pumpkin and watch both disappear

Autumn’s annual debut in South Texas has crept up on us, finally sweeping those 100-degree sweltering days into the history books. Now is the time to ponder carving pumpkins and simmering pots of caldo on the stovetop.

Jack-o-lanterns lie tumbled in local grocery aisles. They weigh anywhere from seven to 15 pounds, and carry an ample harvest of pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, an easily prepared snack with a little salt (and no oil) and a 10-minute visit to a 350-degree oven.

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Local pastry chefs undoubtedly will whip up the classic pie for Thanksgiving, but what else can you do with the pumpkin or, in our other language, the calabasa? Pumpkin is a squash, the big orange cousin of acorn and butternut, and nature doesn’t add nutmeg or cinnamon while it grows on the vine. Slice, butter, and bake it, and you’ll be surprised at how much it tastes like crookneck or zucchini squash — there’s just a lot more of it.

Now then, put the pumpkin aside for a while. The cooler weather dictates that it’s time to get a caldo, prepared from an old family recipe, simmering on the stovetop.

Caldo is soup. Popular in many local restaurants, it contains hefty pieces of corn on the cob and beef bones with the obligatory skein of fat, and lots of comino to dull the taste buds. But for discerning home chefs, a leaner cut of beef, pork, or chicken awaits at the grocery. And family recipes differ. In this case, the brew is a loose translation of a caldo tlalpeño concoction, courtesy of Mamí Carmen, a beloved mother-in-law who lives deep in the heart of México.

Reenter the pumpkin, if only for a moment. Surprise the niños with a fun way to serve a favorite fall caldo recipe — inside a piping-hot calabasa. Begin with the caldo, which should be lovingly simmered to its reassuringly savory flavor in the family cazuela.

Cover the bottom of a hot skillet in olive, canola, or vegetable oil and brown a couple of pounds of beef tips (or stew meat) cut into bite-size pieces.

Next, unearth the old soup pot and dust it off.

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A caldo-and-pumpkin stew will warm you on those 45-degree nights. (Photos by Michael Cary)

While the meat is browning, cut a large, white onion into quarters and throw it into the blender. Add an 8-ounce can of Rotel brand tomatoes with green chilies (excuse the typo on the can, it’s chiles), fill the blender with water, and liquefy.

Pour the blended ingredients into the soup pot, add the browned meat, toss in four to seven dried chipotle peppers, add more water to fill the pot, and set it to simmer.

Meanwhile, pull out three or four red potatoes, a few stalks of celery, a good handful of carrots, crookneck and zucchini squash, and add a couple of turnips, cut into stew-sized chunks. (Remember, we’re cooking the soup the whole way through before we even think about the pumpkin.)

After about an hour, add the potatoes, carrots, and turnips to the stew. Simmer another 20 minutes or so, add the squash and celery, and simmer for another 15 minutes. Turn off the heat. Add three or four epazote leaves (if you still have any growing in the backyard this time of year), replace the lid, and let the stew rest.

Note that ingredients and seasonings may vary from household to household: The contents of a favorite caldo are not an exact science, so feel free to modify the recipe to this point.

While the family recipe rests on the stovetop, prepare the pumpkin for its debut as a stewpot. Wash that 13-pound pumpkin and cut out the top as you would a jack-o-lantern. Remove the seeds and save them for roasting later. (Discard the stringy stuff that entangles the seeds and clings to the inside of the pumpkin. I scrape it out with the edge of a large soup spoon.)

Oil the bottom of a flat baking sheet.

Pour more oil onto a paper towel and, before it can drip down your apron onto the floor and your custom chef shoes, coat the outside of the pumpkin, especially the bottom.

Set oven temperature to 325 degrees in the bake, not broil, mode.

This is the exciting part. Take your pot of caldo and spoon it into the cavernous interior of the pumpkin. Replace the hand-carved lid, and set it onto the baking sheet. Shove it into the oven, and leave it there for about two hours, until the pumpkin is fully cooked. It will take some resolve to ignore the sizzling sound of the pumpkin as the exterior turns a deep, burnt orange hue, but the surprise on your family’s face will be the reward when the table is set with a steaming caldo a la calabasa.

A note of caution: If the pumpkin is overcooked, its bottom can give way, spilling boiling caldo on you, the kitchen floor, and any pets loitering at your feet. Always support the bottom by placing the pumpkin on a large serving plate.

Don’t forget to scrape a few chunks of the pumpkin into the soup bowls before la familia squeezes on the jugo limón and dives into this traditional recipe with a holiday flair. They will savor the familiar, reliable caldo tlalpeño, and they’ll be sure to come back for seconds.

By Michael Cary


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