Eating Rome: Apicius’ Alexandrian Pumpkins
Reader, at several points during this recipe you may wonder if I have gone mad. Don’t worry, I did too. At various preparation stages, I wondered if Apicius was pranking me from the grave, because this goo would never work and smelled less than promising. But then, once completed, I tasted it…
You HAVE to make this.
As an academic disclaimer, because someone is sure to point it out if I don’t, no: the Romans did not have access to pumpkins. There are two groups of squash, and pumpkins, butternut squashes and courgettes/zucchini are all from the Americas. The second group of squashes originated in North Africa, and this recipe is from Alexandria. The squashes available at the time in Alexandria were likely calabash, or bottle gourds. I don’t know about you, but my local grocer does not stock calabash. And as I’ve said before, Apicius is welcome to come and haunt me for my culinary digressions as much as he likes, but I think he’d forgive me for my New World pumpkins if he could taste them.
I’ve made a few other tweaks to his recipe, as usual, because I have new fangled equipment, a limited budget, and to be honest he doesn’t give a lot of instruction. My version is designed for keen historians who like to cook but don’t have the time or money to buy replica equipment and spend 3 hours grinding nuts into a paste. So this is very much a mere interpretation that is nevertheless easily achievable and incredibly tasty.
The ingredients list is MAD, but of course I have my usual list of handy substitutions:
3 pumpkins (use the smaller ones, about the size of a grapefruit, because huge pumpkins are bland AF.) OR, if you prefer, butternut squash, which my local supermarket has started selling pre-chunked and frozen. A 500g bag is perfect.
Half a litre of fruity red wine
1 tablespoon of pomegranate, date or fig molasses. If you can’t find any, double the amount of the dates/raisins.
2 pitted dates OR a small handful of raisins
100g of pine nuts OR blanched and peeled almonds, OR 100g ground almonds (if you like smoother sauces)
4 tablespoons of fresh mint or 2 tablespoons dried mint
4 tablespoons of garum OR Thai fish sauce (I use Blue Dragon) OR 2 anchovies
2 tablespoons of red wine or sherry vinegar
2 or 3 tablespoons of honey according to personal taste
Half a teaspoon of asafoetida OR 1 teaspoon of garlic or onion powder
1 tablespoon of cumin
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
1 teaspoon of peppercorns
Olive oil as needed
So that’s a bit of an eccentric list. Yes, you read 4 tablespoons of fish sauce correctly, you have to trust me. Asafoetida is the closest thing we have to ancient silphium. It WILL smell like gunpowder and sweaty eggs when you open the jar, and European cuisine has never really harnessed it. Never fear, there’s a handy hack to make sure it transforms into something delicious.
Preheat your oven at 180°C/350°f/gas mark 4
Take your pumpkin/squash and cut in half. Scoop out the seeds and scrape out any slimy bits. Cut into chunks or slices of approximately the same size. Personally I went for 4cm chunks so that the pumpkins didn’t get too mushy. Personally I chose not to peel yet, for the same reason.
Place the pumpkin chunks in a roasting dish, sprinkle a little salt and coat in oil.
Shove into the oven for around 30 minutes. The goal is not to completely roast them now, we just want them softened and slightly caramelised on the edges
Put your wine, molasses and dates/raisins into a saucepan on a medium heat until it starts to boil, then turn down the heat and allow to reduce to a third of its volume. This is our caroenum substitute. There’s a modern version called vincotto which you can order online if you want to feel fancy but this version is easy enough.
Grind your cumin, coriander seeds and pepper in a mortar or coffee grinder. To be honest, you can use pre-ground versions of all of these if you prefer smoother sauces. Don’t spend a fortune on the supermarket jars, buy your spices in the World Food aisle and thank me later.
Check the wine has reduced, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
Remove the pumpkin chunks and, if you have not yet peeled them, leave them to cool. The skin will come right off with a spoon and your peeler will thank you.
Scoop the fruit from the reduced wine and place in a blender with the nuts, mint, and honey. Blend until you get a thick paste. At this point you might be tempted to taste it. Do not taste it.
Add the fish sauce, vinegar, and red wine reduction slowly as you blend until you get a thick, pesto like consistency. Do NOT taste it.
Pop it in the saucepan you reduced the wine in and heat on medium until it starts to bubble, then take off the heat. If it gets too thick add a splash of water to loosen. NOW you can taste it, because some of the ingredients need to be cooked out a little so they don’t punch you in the tastebuds. At this point, you may start to trust me.
In a small pan over medium heat, add a splash of oil or ghee and leave to get hot. Add your asafoetida and let it cook out in the oil for 30 seconds or so. This is what takes away the eggy stench. If you’re too scared of it or can’t find it, you don’t have to do this with garlic or onion powder.
Then add the cumin, coriander seeds and pepper mix into the oil and fry gently for a further 30 seconds.
Add the oil and spices into the saucepan and mix well.
Taste again. NOW you REALLY trust me. Told you so!
Return your pumpkin to the roasting dish, and spoon over the mixture from the saucepan. BE GENEROUS. Gently stir to ensure each chunk is completely coated.
Return to the oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until the pumpkin is completely soft and the pesto-like sauce starts to turn into a sticky crust.
Remove from oven, leave for 2 minutes and then tuck in with a side of couscous or bulgur wheat (which Apicius didn’t mention, but I think pairs very nicely. I’m also planning on putting some on a bed of hummus with a pile of pita.)
The sauce mixture, by itself, is incredibly rich, with a warmth from the spices and sweet, fruity notes from the wine, dates and honey. The fish sauce and asafoetida give that umami base that is so addictive. When you add it to the silky soft pumpkin, alchemy happens. Depending on the size of your squashes, you may not wish to use ALL of the mixture lest you drown the pumpkin, so we kept some back, loosened it with a bit more water and it made the most amazing braising sauce for chunks of beef or lamb served with rice.
This is the perfect recipe for autumnal suppers, when squashes are in season, affordable and plentiful. I love jack o’lanterns as much as the next girl, but to be honest this might be my favourite use of pumpkin. If you give this a try, and you absolutely should, please let us know what you think!!