“Do you think that pumpkins are really an American thing?” P. asked me at the dinner table as we ate the squash soup I had made from the leftovers of a large squash used the day before. “Ah mais que oui! Absolument”, I answered.
Of course, I had seen and eaten squashes before I moved to the US. But certainly not as often and as many as I have since I live in New England. These days, while walking and driving around, the only color that I seem to be able to discern amongst all is orange. Lines of artistically — or not — carved and plain pumpkins are arranged in front of random buildings, at farmer’s markets and grocery stores, or on people’s doorsteps. Some are enormous! Even trees enter the dance and are going wild displaying a panel of orangy-toned colors. While growing up, eating pumpkins or squashes* was for me rather an exception than a habit. This type of vegetables, from la famille des cucurbitacées, belonged to the list of the forgotten vegetables, les légumes anciens (the old vegetables). No wonder, with a name like this! Even for someone native French, this word is hell to say and write! As a matter of fact, I always seem to misplace the “r” or miss an “e”. Les cucurbitacées (latin, Cucurbitaceae) is the family of vegetables and fruit, including all plants with long stems and big fruit, such as cucumbers or melons, and pumpkins and squashes, of all forms and names. All of them.
The fashion changed however. Just like with the introduction of Halloween in the French culture. “Les enfants vont chez les gens ramasser des bonbons,” my brother told me when I asked him whether people celebrate Halloween now (kids go to people’s houses to collect candies). “Les restaurants proposent aussi des menus spéciaux”, he added (restaurants offer special menus for the occasion). How odd to think that Halloween seems to be going global. I will always think it is an American tradition since I really discovered it here.
So yes, in spite of the fact that many more varieties of squashes are now à la mode in France, I really was only introduced to cooking and eating them in the US. The first time I actually ate a pumpkin pie was about twelve years ago at Thanksgiving, when I worked as a French Teaching Assistant at the Univeristy of Illinois. For the occasion, I had been invited by my friend and roomate M. to spend the holiday with her family. I would not be a lost soul staying alone on campus, in the house I was sharing with nine other people. On Thanksgiving Day, while all sitting early — for my typical French dinner clock — at the dinner table at her parents’, I remember looking at the pumpkin pie thinking “C’est quoi cette tarte ? (What is this tart?) What a weird color!” Une tarte de citrouille ? (A pumpkin tart?) But I loved the taste and it did not take me long to adopt pumpkins and squashes of all shapes in my own cooking. Every year, I now look forward to the fall to discover new varieties and play with them.
Give me Duck, Squash and Apples, and I Am Happy — Donnez-moi du canard, du potimarron et des pommes, et je suis heureuse
It does not come as a surprise then that I wanted to experiment with a new recipe using squash. This time around, I thought I would revisit a classic of French cuisine, le hachis parmentier, and give it a different twist. Typically, this dish is combining mashed potatoes with ground beef, cooked like a gratin. But for the occasion, since orange is such a prevailing fall color, I decided to use squash (potiron or potimarron**) instead of potatoes, and duck confit (confit de canard) instead of beef, because I love this type of meat even more.
What is a confit, you might ask?
The French word “confit” derives from the verb confire, which means to preserve. Preserving food can be made following a lot of technics and using a wide array of ingredients such as honey, sugar, vinegar, salt and fat. According to Le larousse gastronomique, le confit is a “morceau de porc ou un quartier de volaille cuit dans sa graisse et mis en pot. Le confit, qui est l’une des formes de conserve les plus anciennes, est une spécialité des provinces du Sud-Ouest.” (Piece of pork or poultry cooked in its own fat and then kept in a jar. Le confit is one of the oldest ways to preserve meat, and is a speciality coming from regions in the South-West of France.) In fact, this way to preserve meat is essentially used with meats such as geese (oie) and duck (canard), giving a beautiful mariage of flavors with the fragrant fat and the taste of the meat.
I could have attempted to make my own confit but I was running short of time. Besides, a quick phone call to my local butcher’s gave me good news: he was carrying des cuisses de confit de canard (duck leg confit). I did not wait for too long. I drove quickly to the store to stock up with a few duck confit legs. You need to do this kind of things, don’t you? Just in case you have friends stopping by à l’improviste, and staying over for dinner.
Comfort food it can be called! This recipe is not difficult and I particularly love the addition of Cortland apples (pommes Cortland) to the duck confit legs. The sweetness of the fruit pairs the pumpkin flesh beautifully, with the kale and salad balancing the flavors. Cooked separately, then assembled in layers, this dish provides not only an unusual and smooth blend of textures and taste, but it is also visually satisfying for anyone who likes to play with colors. Brown, Beige, Dark Green and Orange. A squash inside a traditional French dish, Halloween is really going global, even in your plate!
*Pumpkin or Squash? Squashes are divided between four types, of which some are actually pumpkins. There is no real distinction between a squash or a pumpkin but general belief is that squashes are what we eat whereas pumpkins are more typically used for pies and jack-o’-lanterns.
**A potimarron is a potiron doux d’Hokkaido (Soft potiron from Hokkaido).
- 1 squash (2 lb)
- 2 Duck confit legs
- Kale (1 bunch) (9 oz washed and blanched)
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 Garlic clove
- 2 Cortland apples, peeled and diced
- Olive oil
- Heavy cream
- Greens, such as baby beet leaves and watercress
- Vinaigrette for the salad, 1 Tbsp white balsamic vinegar and 3 Tbsp walnut or hazelnut oil, salt and pepper
- Salt and pepper
- Wash the squash. Cut it and remove the seeds. Boil it in salted water until tender and purée it with the skin, adding a little bit of its own cooking broth and a few Tbsp of cream to get a smooth creamy consistency. Season with salt and pepper and add chopped tarragon and a dash of nutmeg. Keep aside.
- Slice the onion. Heat 2 Tbsp of olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and sautéed the onion for 5 mns, on medium heat until tender.
- Remove the meat from the duck legs legs and add thin pieces of it to the onion. Continue to cook for 5 mns and set aside.
- Use the same pan and sautéed the apples for 3 mns, then reduce the heat and cover, to cook for 15 mns, until the apples are tender. Add the meat and onion to warm and season with salt and pepper.
- Wash the kale and remove the hard central parts. Blanch it in salted boiling salted water for 5 mns. Rinse under cold water and chop it thinly. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a frying pan and cook the chopped garlic for 2 mns on medium heat, before adding the kale. Increase the heat and cook for 5 mns. Season with salt and pepper and remove.
- To make the parmentier, take individual ring molds (measuring 3 x 2.5 “, or a large oven dish) and place them on a bakig sheet covered with foil paper. Start with adding the squash at the bottom of each mold, continue with a layer of kale and finish with the meat mixture. Cook in the oven for 10 mns at 400 F. Top with the seasoned salad.
- 1 potiron (1 kg)
- 2 cuisses de canard confites
- Chou vert frisé (250 g lavé et blanchi)
- 1 oignon
- 1 gousse d’ail
- 2 pommes Cortland, pelées et coupées en petis dés
- Huile d’olive
- Crème liquide
- Noix de muscade
- Mélange de petites feuilles de salade, ou cresson
- Vinaigrette pour la salade: 1 càs de vinaigre blanc de balsamique et 3 càs d’huile de noix ou de noisette, sel et poivre
- Sel et poivre
- Lavez le potimarron. Coupez-le en gros cubes et enlevez les pépins. Faites-le cuire dans de l’eau bouillante salée jusqu’à ce qu’il soit tendre, puis réduisez-le en purée, en ajoutant du jus de cuisson et un peu de crème liquide pour obtenir une consistance crèmeuse. Assaisonnez-le avec du sel et du poivre, et ajoutez l’estragon haché et une pointe de muscade. Mettez de côté.
- Hachez l’oignon. Faites chauffer 2 càs d’huile d’olive dans une poêle anti-adhésive et faites-y revenir l’oignon pendant 5 mns, sur feu moyen.
- Retirez la viande des cuisses de canard et ajoutez-la à l’oignon, et poursuivez la cuisson pendant 5 mns. Mettez de côté.
- Utilisez la même poêle et faites revenir les pommes coupées en petits dés pendant 3 mns, puis réduisez le feu et cuisez pendant 15 mns à couvert, jusqu’à ce que les pommes soient tendres. Ajoutez alors la viande et l’oignon, et assaisonnez de sel et de poivre.
- Lavez le chou et retirez la partie centrale dure. Faites-le blanchir dans de l’eau bouillante salée pendant 5 mns. Rinsez-le sous de l’eau froide et hachez-le finement. Faites chauffer 1 càs d’huile d’olive dans une poêle et faites-y revenir une gousse d’ail hachée pendant 2 mns, sur feu moyen avant d’ajouter le chou. Augmentez la température et cuisez pendant 5 mns. Assaisonnez de sel et de poivre et mettez de côté.
- Pour réaliser vos parmentiers, prenez des cercles individuels (mesurant 6 x 7,5 cm, ou un grand plat à gratin) et mettez-les sur une plaque de cuisson recouverte d’une feuille de papier aluminium. Commencez par une couche de potimarron, continuez avec une couche de chou et terminez avec le canard. Cuisez au four préchauffé à 200 C pendant 10 mns. Garnissez avec le mélange de salade assaisonnée.