Pumpkin and Rice Soup with Za'atar Croutons Recipe

If it looks as though I've been applying fake tan lately I can explain. I've been eating a LOT of pumpkin; so much that an orange hue has surely seeped into my pores by this point. I've tried a few new pumpkin recipes, in search of an interesting dish full of flavor and spice. The one I'm sharing with you here, which the writer calls 'the comfort blanket of the Middle Eastern soup world', allows the pumpkin's flavour to shine as it crackles with an exotic mix of spices.

Around this time of year cheery jack-o-lantern festooned recipes crop up everywhere, all calling for pumpkin as their primary ingredient. Frustratingly most pumpkin recipes I've seen give no guidance on what type of pumpkin is best to use, thus many cooks undoubtedly buy a big orange guy and are disappointed with the results. It's become common practice to substitute butternut squash for pumpkin, as 'carving' pumpkins have flesh that is quite watery and tasteless.

When faced with a selection of thick-stemmed beauties at a market, how can you tell a squash from a pumpkin? They're easily confused as they're from the same family, and what's called what can depend on where you are in the world. Don't get hung up on a genus or species. Experiment! There are so many vibrant, funky looking ones to try. I bought this one from my local green grocer....

I went to an expert for some squa-pump shopping tips. Andreas Georghiou runs Andreas Fine Fruit and Veg in London, a shop that carefully sources stunning seasonal produce. He recommends the following:

TIP 1: When buying squashes or pumpkins the golden rule is always to ensure that the fruit is 'heavy' for its size; this means that there is plenty of meaty flesh within the skin. Also make sure that there's no sign of rot on the stalk and it is in relatively good condition.

TIP 2: 'Helloween' pumpkins or 'jackpots' have become so mass produced that they are very watery. The flesh needs to be mixed with a more edible variety such as crown prince, iron bar, or butternut when cooked, so as to not waste the inside.

TIP 3: When peeling pumpkins and squash to simplify the task carefully pour very hot water on the skin so as soften it ready for an easy peel.

These tips all proved valuable as I prepared to make the recipe for Pumpkin and Rice Soup with Za'atar Croutons from Sally Butcher's new electrifying book Veggiestan. Sally runs a Persian food shop in London, and this is her second book exploring Middle Eastern flavours. Open the vibrant, velvety flocked cover and you're greeted with a blast of colourful recipes made with copious feisty ingredients. Gazing at the photos, you can practically smell the warming fragrances filling up your home. Anyone who ever assumed meat-free food is repetitious and bland needs to flick through these pages for an eye-opener. This was the first recipe I've tried from the book, and I was thrilled with the smooth medium-spicy soup, textured with tender rice and a zesty, crunchy topping.

Now, I love personal touches in a cookbook — reading why the writer was moved to share a recipe, a bit of cultural or historical context, but foremost I seek clarity in the ingredients list and preparation descriptions. I assumed the pumpkin weight listed was that of the prepared pumpkin, and later found myself stirring a soup of thick pie batter consistency. I tweeted the author to clarify, and she kindly replied that the weight was for a whole pumpkin; recommending to either buy a small one, or she suggested some local green grocers will hack a piece off of a larger pumpkin to suit your needs. I salvaged this batch easily by diluting it with additional stock.

I hate food waste, and it sounds sensible to use the seeds scooped from this pumpkin for the garnish. But I found tossing the cleaned seeds in a pan for a few minutes failed to crisp and lighten their thick, husky shells. I quickly substituted these with some packaged pumpkin seeds I had in the cupboard, which worked fabulously.

There's a friendly sidebar on how different cultures enjoy pumpkin seeds, but I would've much preferred that space was used to discuss what varieties of pumpkin she recommends to cook with and tips for preparing the flesh and seeds. If you've never cooked with a pumpkin before, it can feel a bit like trying to make a hot dog out of a dinosaur the first time round.

Pumpkin and Rice Soup with Za'atar Croutons
Adapted from: Veggiestan by Sally Butcher

Serves 4 (big bowls) 

Approx 1kg / 2lb 4oz pumpkin (weight of unprepared pumpkin)
2 tablespoons oil (peanut/groundnut preferable but any will do)
2 medium onions
3 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mild curry powder
1/2 Scotch bonnet chilli
175g / 6oz pudding/short grain rice
1 litre / 1 3/4 pints vegetable stock
2 slices of stale bread
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds*
1 tablespoon of za'atar**
salt and pepper

*You can clean, dry and roast the seeds from your pumpkin (good guide here) or just use pumpkin seeds from a pack, as I did.
**Za'atar is a spice mix commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking. You can find it ready-mixed in some shops, or you can make it yourself by combining 1tsp crushed sumac, 1 tsp ground thyme, 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds, and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. This mixture varies throughout regions and families.

Pour very hot water over your pumpkin to soften the peel. Peel the pumpkin, scoop out and discard the stringy center bits, retain the seeds if using (then clean them, roast and set aside). Cut the pumpkin into chunks and roughly chop the onions, garlic and chilli.

Heat one and a half tablespoons of the oil in a large soup pot. Cook the onion until it softens then add the garlic, spices and chilli, followed by the pumpkin. Stir the mix gently to coat the pumpkin in spice. Pour the stock in, bring to the boil, and add half of the rice. Simmer for 30 minutes.

While this simmers take out a medium pan and boil the rest of the rice in water for about 15 minutes or until it is soft. Set aside to drain.

After 30 minutes the pumpkin mixture should be very tender. Take it off the heat and blend it, either in a blender or using a stick blender. Add the drained rice to the soup and set it back to simmer gently while you prepare the topping. Cut the crust off the bread slices. Cut the bread into cubes. Heat the remaining oil in a frying pan and toss the bread cubes in. Once they start to turn golden on all sides add the pumpkin seeds and the za'atar. Stir constantly for about a minute then take off the heat (or the seeds will pop and leap out of the pan!). Season the soup to taste, and serve garnished with the za'atar croutons and seeds.

Love your Leftovers: You will most likely find yourself with more pumpkin than you need for this recipe. The good news is it is very easy to incorporate into other meals. Cube the remaining pumpkin and toss in some oil on a baking tray. Roast in a medium oven (200C) for about 20 - 30 minutes until it starts to char on the edges. Roasted pumpkin works brilliantly in a risotto with crumbled stinky cheese, or on a bed of couscous with dollops of harissa.

Thanks to Anova Books for the review copy and book cover image.  

1 comment:

  1. I wish I had read this earlier, it sounds delicious. I dumped the contents of the inside of our Halloween pumpkin as I was uninspired as to what to make from it and feared I would end up eating it for days to come!


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