People are often surprised by the use of pumpkin and winter squash in Middle Eastern food. Perhaps because pumpkin is often looked down upon in other cuisines, or because many people associate the Middle East with a warmer climate, or simply because we associate it with American pumpkin pie, but winter squashes are quite beloved from Algeria to Lebanon to Yemen. There's even a saying about how the Prophet Muhammad loved pumpkin, though this is not possible because pumpkin is a New World crop. (I use the term pumpkin loosely, as the preferred squash in the Middle East is the similar large turban squash). Today, roast pumpkin seeds (bizr) are probably the most popular snack in the region, and pumpkin finds its way into Moroccan lamb tagines, Lebanese pumpkin dumplings, and is caramelized in chunks as sweet treats and grated and transformed into jams and desserts.
This recipe is basically the pumpkin version of hummus, and it is one of my favorite uses of pumpkin in Middle Eastern cuisine. Instead of chickpeas, the recipe combines cooked pureed pumpkin with tahini, garlic, and lemon. You’ll often find this pumpkin dip on tables as an appetizer, perhaps garnished with flecks of parsley or jewels of pomegranate seeds, and its nutty sweet aroma makes it as delicious as it is beautiful. But as wonderful as it is as a dip, I actually love to serve this as a side dish at dinner, much like you might serve a butternut squash puree, and I even like to thin it with a bit of broth and serve it as a soup. Which means that you have three very good serving options for one very good recipe. And actually, sometimes when I serve it as a dip I add a few chickpeas to the mix, keeping that hummus inspiration, option four.
In our house, we’ve adopted this Middle Eastern pumpkin dip as an appetizer at Thanksgiving or at a buffet over the holidays, it looks so festive with its sparkly pomegranate seed garnish. I'll stop now before I give you yet another serving idea, so you can go forth, spread the love of pumpkin, and some cheer as the holiday season is just beginning!
Nutty Pumpkin Puree (Mouttabal al-Yaqteen)
This versatile puree is usually served as a dip and it makes a delicious winter appetizer. I also like to serve it as a side dish at dinner. This makes a lot, so you can halve it depending on the crowd.
2 lbs fresh pumpkin or other winter squash
2 garlic cloves
3/4 cup tahini
juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp ground cumin
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds, or pomegranate molasses, or parsley, for garnish
1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Cut the squash in half, place cut side down on a greased baking sheet, and roast until completely tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, place the garlic, tahini, lemon, salt, and cumin in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture is well combined and lightens in color slightly.
2. Use a metal spoon to scoop out the squash flesh and transfer it directly to the blender jar. Blend the mixture until smooth. Adjust the consistency with a little bit of water if necessary. Transfer to the refrigerator to store until serving.
4. To serve, spread the dip in a serving bowl and sprinkle pomegranate seeds and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses over top.
Variation: Pumpkin Hummus- add one cup cooked chickpeas to the mixture before pureeing.