Part of my work with refugees brings me to unexpected areas of town. Who would have expected to find Uzbecki food in the middle of Korea’s capital, and men in folded bear fur hats? The smells from the Russian konditoreis and restaurants reminded me of previous work I’d done involving Afghanistan. During that project, I sampled this dish for the first time, and it’s become one of my favorites — the mixtures of sweet and savory, cool and warm, crunchy and soft, and opaque and translucent never fail to leave me feeling satisfied.
Before Spring dispels all the chill from the air, I’d recommend this to fill your oven and your belly. I’ve included both a long form and a short form (on the table in an hour) of the recipe.
A few important notes on this recipes — first, the vegetarian and vegan variations are wonderful. Second, if you have the time, please try the long-version of the candied pumpkin, since it’s as beautiful as it is tasty…and yes, dump all that sugar in there. Use a sugar pie pumpkin if available, and try substituting butternut squash for a variation. Third, traditionally, the dish is layered with pumpkin, garlic yogurt sauce, and then meat. I did it differently this time, as you can see in the photo. However, the layering of hot and cold components really makes the flavors dance.
2 small pumpkins, weighing about 24 ounces in total
6 tbsp canola oil
3 cups sugar
2 cups plain unsweetened yogurt, whole-fat or low-fat
3 minced garlic cloves, separated
1 tsp dried mint
2 tsp salt, separated
1/4 cup canola oil
1 large onion, finely diced
24 ounces of ground beef
1 large tomato, seeded and finely chopped
1 1/4 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 1/3 cups water
First, slow bake your pumpkin to candy it slowly. This will take about 4 hours, but is worth the time investment. Alternatively, you can sear the pumpkin on the stovetop and bake it after. This can be on your table in about an hour.
To slow bake, preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Half pumpkins. Scoop out the seeds and the stringy innards. Slice the halves into three or four pieces each. Peel each piece or carefully cut off all the skin.
Place all pieces in a large pan in one layer. Place them hollow side up in the pan. Pour the oil over the pumpkin pieces, then pour the sugar evenly over the slices. Cover the pan with aluminum foil.
Bake for 2 1/2 hours. Baste the pieces with the juices, recover, and bake for another 45 minutes.
Alternatively, to save time, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Quarter the pumpkin and remove the seeds and stringy innards. Remove the skin and cut pieces into 2-inch chunks. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet or a dutch oven. Brown the pumpkin pieces, flipping frequently, until all sides are golden brown. Cover evenly with 1/3 cup of sugar. Top with lid or foil and transfer the pumpkin to the oven, and bake for 30 minutes. This will speed up the cooking process, but it will not create the smooth texture, golden translucency, and rich flavor of the slow-baking method.
Next, make the yogurt sauce. Whisk or blend the yogurt with 1 clove minced garlic, dried mint, and 1/2 tsp salt. Refrigerate until just ready to use.
Finally, when the pumpkin has 30 minutes left to go (or just after you put it in the over in the quick-cook version), make the meat sauce. Over medium heat, brown the onions in the oil in a saucepan, taking about 5 minutes. Add the meat and stir until browned. Add 1 tomato, 2 minced garlic cloves, coriander, 1 1/2 tsp salt, pepper, and turmeric. Cook for 5 more minutes, stirring frequently. Add tomato paste and water, and bring mixture to a boil. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, until thickened.
Serve immediately. Place the pumpkin on the bottom, top with the yogurt sauce, then finish with the meat sauce. The hot-cold-hot layering, and the sweet-savory flavor is amazing!
If you’d like a vegetarian meal, replace the meat with soy crumbles. If you’d like a vegan meal, replace the yogurt with 2 cups blended silken tofu.