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Hilde Lee: Pumpkin bread reflects versatility of squash family

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Somebody asked me the other day if there are any winter vegetables. I thought for a few minutes and said, “Oh, yes, there are a variety, many of which most of us do not use.” They belong to the squash family — pumpkins, gourds and even peppers can be included in the selection. The original home for edible squashes was and still is South and Central America.

However, by 1000 BC, squashes had traveled up to North America. Many beautiful shapes and varieties of squash were developed in this country by the natives in the Southwest, and as well as in the Northeast.

Scientists tell us that the turban squash originated in Brazil. It was brought to the United States in 1824. Other squashes were also named “turban.” The Hubbard squash originated in the West Indies. To try and trace the origins and names of early squashes is like playing roulette.

Squash was probably the very first food cultivated by the American Indians and made up what is called the Indian triad — maize, beans and squash. These three were the basis of the Indian diet in both Americas — North and South. In the Indian burial mounds of Ohio, Kentucky, and northwestern Virginia, squash seeds were uncovered. Squash was being cultivated by the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern Untied States at least 2,000 years ago.

Almost as soon as European explorers reached the Southwest and Mexico, they began to describe the importance of squash. Squash seeds and squash flowers appeared on the table of Montezuma. Both are still eaten today — the first like peanuts and the second in various cooked dishes. To make definitions more complicated, the terms “squash” and “pumpkin” have been intermixed.

The Anasazi of the Southwest cultivated squash and corn as early as the first century A.D. One early preparation for hard-shelled squash called for boiling it to a paste and mixing it with suet. This mixture was then formed into cakes and fried on hot stone slabs.

Boiling whole pumpkins was another preparation of the Southwest Indians. When a boiled pumpkin was cracked open, each partaker would break off a piece of the rind, swallow the pumpkin bulk adhering to it, and use this scoop to scrap the pulp out of the remaining pumpkin. Navajo sand paintings, which were used in religious ceremonies for their curative powers, often pictured squash plants along with corn, beans and tobacco.

Despite the speedy entry of both terms — squash and pumpkin — in the 16th and 17th centuries, squashes did not reach European tables in any number until the 19th century. There were some experimental plantings of squash in England in the early 1700s, but the vegetable did not catch on.

Having lived in the Southwest for nine years, from 2005 to 2013, I became homesick, writing about this region and its lifestyle. It is home to many ethnic groups — Spanish, Mexican, Anglo-American. However, it was the Native Americans — primarily the Pueblo, and the Navajo, who lived there for more than 10,000 years — who set the lifestyle of the region.

The Pueblo and Navajo are village dwellers and farmers. Many live in small villages around Santa Fe. Even today, raising corn, beans, and squash is a way of life. Their religion is linked to agriculture and depends on group ceremonies and rituals for rain and fertility.

Spaniards arriving in New Mexico in the late 15th century found the Pueblo people along the Rio Grande growing many kinds of squash, including pumpkins. They continue to be an important ingredient in the cooking of all of the major tribes of the Southwest. The pumpkin, a squash, is valued for its flesh, but also its seeds, and makes a handy cooking pot for soups and stews.

One of my treasured recipes from the Southwest is Pueblo Pumpkin Bread, which combines two traditional Southwest ingredients in a spicy, cake-like bread. It may be served lightly toasted. Canned pumpkin is available year around and can be used in this recipe. Walnuts can be substituted for piñon nuts.

Pueblo Pumpkin Bread

■ 1 1/2 cups flour

■ 1 cup mashed or pureed pumpkin

■ 1/4 cup sugar

■ 1/2 cup butter, melted

■ 2 eggs, beaten

■ 1 teaspoon baking powder

■ 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

■ 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

■ ¼ cup shelled piñon nuts (or walnuts)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a mixing bowl combine the flour, pumpkin, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Stir in the nuts. Place batter in a greased 6- by 9-inch bread pan. Bake for 1 hour or until a knife inserted in the bread comes out clean. Serves 6 to 8.


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