Japanese-Style Pumpkin with Ground Pork; Perfect Japanese Rice

I love this odd time of year—not really summer, but not quite fall, either. There are a few hot days, sure, but also enough cool spells that the mind begins to turn to non-summery thoughts: leaves in brilliant colors, Halloween candy, flickering fireplaces. (Okay, I don’t have a fireplace. But I would take full advantage if I did.) And those soothing “comfort” foods—soups, stews, casseroles—that we’ve put on hiatus for too many months.

This dish—Japanese-Style Pumpkin with Ground Pork—was frequently on the menu at home when I was growing up. And it doesn’t get any more comforting than this. The star of the recipe is the squat Japanese pumpkin, or kabocha, whose dark green exterior opens up to vibrant orange flesh.

Like most squash, the kabocha is a nutritional heavyweight, packed with beta-carotene as well as iron, vitamin C, and potassium. In Japan, it is commonly stewed or sliced thinly as tempura. Happily, it’s beginning to catch on in the U.S. now, too—I never have trouble finding kabocha at the produce market or through FreshDirect. When cooked, the flesh is sweet and appealingly dense. The skin is thin, tender, and entirely edible.

For Japanese-Style Pumpkin with Ground Pork, the kabocha and pork are stewed with aromatic ginger and scallion. Sugar brings out the natural sweetness of the pumpkin, and a bit of sesame oil stirred in at the end of cooking adds a fragrant final note.

Regarding ingredients:

I like to store fresh ginger in the freezer because when I buy a knob, I know there’s no way in hell I’ll use the whole thing before it goes bad. In the freezer, it will keep indefinitely, but of course, you won’t be able to chop or slice it. To use the frozen root, just peel however much you need with a paring knife, and grate with a microplane (or another fine-holed grater).

I labeled cornstarch as optional in the recipe because I am rather conflicted about using it. In general, I try to avoid it because the texture it confers reminds me of egg drop soup from a bad Chinese restaurant. But with this dish, I tend to go back and forth. Try it both ways, and see what you prefer.

JAPANESE-STYLE PUMPKIN WITH GROUND PORK

Vegetable oil
1 small kabocha
1/2 pound ground pork
2 slices ginger
4 scallions, cut into 1″ lengths, plus one thinly sliced, for garnish
2 tablespoons white wine or sherry
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups water
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons cornstarch, mixed with water (optional)

After scooping out the seeds, cut pumpkin into large chunks. Combine water, wine, soy sauce, sugar, and salt, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. Set aside. Fry meat in a couple tablespoons of oil. Ad 1″ lengths of scallion and ginger and saute. Add pumpkin and stir. Pour in water mixture, cover, and cook until pumpkin is thoroughly tender (about 30 minutes), stirring occasionally. Add sesame oil and cornstarch, if using, to thicken. Garnish with chopped scallion and serve with rice.

PERFECT JAPANESE RICE

In a large bowl (like a mixing bowl), swish 2 cups Japanese rice in several changes of cold water, until water no longer clouds up. Cover rice with cold water and let soak for half an hour. Drain thoroughly. Put rice in rice cooker with 2 cups water. When cooked, let the rice rest a few minutes under the “keep warm” setting.

Be sure to visit the pretty blog What’s for Lunch, Honey? which is hosting a special pumpkin event this month.