This festive side dish features a tasty rice mixture that can be served inside a hollowed, baked pumpkin or other hard-rind squash. Pumpkins were cultivated in Mexico more than 5,000 years ago. Native American Indians were eating them long before the Pilgrims arrived. Avoid field pumpkins, which have watery, stringy flesh.
Rice is the perfect canvas for a multitude of flavors and textures. Choose an aromatic, long-grain rice with a nutty flavor like Carolina Gold Rice, an heirloom rice that is the pride of the Lowcountry; basmati, native to Northern India; or jasmine, native to Thailand. If using basmati or jasmine rice, first rinse the raw rice under cool water until it runs clear. A 7-ounce box of fragrant Konriko Wild Pecan Rice (no pecans or wild rice included) or Extra Long Grain Carolina White Rice are also good choices.
3 cups cooked rice (1 cup long-grain or extra-long-grain rice, cooked according to package directions with chicken broth or water)
1 baking pumpkin (4-5 pounds), or 2 to 3 smaller pie pumpkins, rinsed, dried
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 stalk celery, trimmed and diced
1 small yellow or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 to 3 teaspoons chopped fresh herbs (sage, oregano, thyme, or parsley)
½ cup dried cranberries or golden raisins
⅓ cup toasted, chopped nuts (cashew nuts, pecans, or walnuts)
Fine sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Cook rice; when done, fluff with a fork and set aside. Preheat oven to 375 F. Place pumpkin on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet. With the tip of a sharp knife, pierce the top 3 or 4 times. Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until pumpkin is tender yet still holds its shape. Cool slightly, then cut off the top to create a lid. Scoop out pumpkin seeds and stringy pulp. Cover with foil to keep warm; set aside.
Heat butter with oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute onion, garlic, celery, and bell pepper until softened. Stir in herbs, raisins, and nuts. Mix in reserved rice until combined; season with salt and pepper. Put pumpkin on a serving platter. Brush the interior with melted butter or olive oil; season lightly. Fill with warm rice mixture; serve any extra on the side. At the table, scoop out the rice mixture along with the cooked pumpkin. Or cut the pumpkin, with rice, into wedges. Serves 5 to 6.
To make sausage rice, saute ¼ pound spicy, bulk sausage meat in the skillet, then add vegetables; stir cooked mixture into rice.
To make bacon rice, stir 4 or 5 slices crisp-cooked, finely chopped bacon into cooked rice mixture.
To make cheesy rice and pumpkin, place baked pumpkin shell in a heatproof pan such as an enamel, cast-iron casserole or large cast iron-skillet. Fill with rice; top with shredded Gruyere, Emmenthaler, or fontina cheese. Heat in a 350 F oven until warm and cheese is melted.