It’s hard to imagine a more fitting dinner for Halloween night than a vibrant orange pumpkin stuffed with rice, warm spices, and meat. I anticipate this ritual every autumn and secure a sugar pumpkin — one will do for Hugo and me — as soon as they turn up in the markets.
These small, flavorsome pumpkins, also used for pie, are essential to the dish. Do not try it with a jack-o’-lantern pumpkin or the trick will be on you. Grown for size, most big pumpkins have little flavor, and those treated with pesticides may not be safe to consume. Smooth-skinned sugar pumpkins are smaller and rounder than carving pumpkins and feature shallower ridges.
Reading Clara Sue Kidwell in Spirit of the Harvest, a cookbook I’ve used for decades, I learned to see pumpkins as more than October ornaments. They are among the oldest of cultivated foods in the Americas, and it’s wonderful to prepare such a primal dish. The astounding luminous color evokes the autumn light and, for me, anyway, the scent of a freshly cut raw pumpkin triggers childhood’s excitement. Then there is the satisfaction of combining ingredients that — I don’t know how else to say it — just want to be together. It all makes for a gratifying cooking experience.
There is a definite wow factor when you serve this dish, whether you’ve interpreted it according to tradition or simply made use of provisions you have on hand. Among Native peoples, depending on region, wild rice with venison, wild fowl, or fish are fillings rooted in history. Ground turkey, beef, or sausage with brown or white rice and generous spicing all work well. Toss in some local cranberries and roast the stuffed pumpkin in the oven — or if you are handy at the firepit, you can bake it in hot embers. I’ve never tried that, but if you do, please let me know how it goes.
This dish also makes a festive side for Thanksgiving, prepared with smaller squashes such as acorn, each one sliced in half horizontally for individual servings.
Once assembled, the stuffed pumpkin will need a good hour or longer in the oven, leaving time to prepare for trick-or-treaters and don your costume.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that this cheering dish is also nutritious: It provides a grain, a protein, and a vitamin-rich vegetable. Or a fruit: technically, pumpkin is a fruit because it grows from a flower. And even though this recipe is adapted from our family’s Five Dollar Foodie cookbook focused on keeping a frugal kitchen, there’s something extravagant about the way this looks, served in its own edible cooking vessel.
Reflecting the Native American roots of this dish, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, or corn can be added to the rice and meat. I like cranberries for their bright taste and color, along with a handful of fresh late-season herbs strewn over the pumpkin once it comes out of the oven. And when our plates are served, we top ours with a little hot red chili sauce, a mild green one, or both
Roasted Stuffed Sugar Pumpkin
1 sugar pumpkin (about 2 lbs.)
½ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. ginger
Salt and pepper
2 Tbsp. oil
2 tsp. honey
½ cup rice
1 large onion, sliced 1/8-inch thick
½ lb. ground beef, turkey, or sausage
¼ tsp. allspice
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. chili powder
3 Tbsp. ketchup
½ cup fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Carve a lid from the pumpkin and set it aside. With a spoon, scrape out the seeds. Season the interior with the cinnamon, ginger, salt, and pepper and drizzle it with 1 tablespoon of oil and the honey. Place the pumpkin in a cast-iron pan or on a baking sheet. Set the rice to cook following package instructions.
- Sauté the onion in a medium-size frying pan in a tablespoon of oil until golden brown. Add the ground meat, allspice, nutmeg, clove, chili powder, ketchup, and salt and pepper to taste; cook over medium-high heat, stirring and breaking up chunks of meat, until the meat is cooked through. Remove from heat and stir in the cooked rice. Add the cranberries. Taste for seasoning.
- Spoon the rice-beef mixture into the pumpkin, cover with its “lid,” and place it in the oven. Pour half an inch of water around the pumpkin and bake for an hour or longer. It’s ready when the pumpkin can be pierced easily with a fork.
- To serve, bring the pumpkin to the table right in the cast-iron pan or on a platter and slice it with a sharp knife, serving some pumpkin along with the meat and rice onto plates.