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There’s a proper day for Carbonada en Zapallo in Argentina, a rich meat, vegetable and fruit stew served in a gutted gourd. That would be July 9, Independence Day, and winter down under.
The dish is a riot of colours, flavours and crazy ideas that sounds incongruous. Meat and potato are at the heart of many a stew and throwing in red and green peppers and carrots don’t sound too wild. But this stew is served inside a pumpkin. And it gets even more bonkers. Corn…still on the cob. In the stew! I know, logistically it sounds tricky to eat, but we’ll soon see the benefit. And just in case this dish was not sufficiently whacky for your taste, we’ll throw in…wait for it…fruit. Chopped green grapes, peaches and pears.
These ingredients are traditionally combined and loaded into an Argentine pumpkin. Not the New England orange jack-o-lantern kind, to be fair, but the ripple-skinned green kind with delicious, stringy yellow flesh (sometimes called Cinderella or Cheese pumpkins). Then, we do not bake the stew-filled-pumpkin in our oven, on a tray covered with baking paper. No, no. In the manner of the Argentine cowboys, we bury it in coals (hence the name "Carbonada") and allow it to cook and meld and melt together into a heavenly goo.
The history of Carbonada
Carbonada dishes may draw their name from two possible origins. The most logical is that they are cooked in buried coals. But some theorize that they were served at a coal mine in Chile, hence their name (they are traditional in various South American countries). I think the coal theory makes the most sense.
Argentine gauchos specialize in several cooking techniques that we could term “laissez-faire”. Set up meat and heat and leave it alone, while you go about your work. This is a great example. Gather chopped meat, vegetables, starch and fruit, put it in a broth inside a hollowed-up pumpkin. Pop the top of the pumpkin back on, to seal, then buried in hot coals. By the time you return from work, the sun setting on the horizon, all you need to do is dig, and you’ve got a hot, wholesome meal with all the food groups represented.
How to make Carbonada
In order to prepare a delicious Carbonada, step one is to make the stew and in a rather traditional manner. All recipes call for a stock pot on a stove top. A stew of the meat begins with flavour enhancers: dry-roasted cumin and coriander seeds, then chilis, which you then pulverize. Then I fry up the meat (beef), removed it when browned, then add all the veg (sweet potatoes, new potatoes, tomato, lentil, garlic, pepper, onion). When these soften, I throw in chopped corn on the cob, cut into third-lengths. Then in goes the meat again, and the chopped fruit, and the pulverized spices. What we’ve got now is a solid, multifaceted stew. But it becomes Carbonada when we slide portions into the hollowed, gently-baked pumpkins.
You want to hear next that I grabbed a shovel, headed to my backyard, and started digging. I had a bonfire going, and I scooped the red-hot ashes into it. I wrapped placed the top-on pumpkins, packed with stew, gently into the ashes, covered them with more ashes, and then threw on some soil to seal. I left them there for a good four to six hours, before gently unearthing them, like a hungry, culinary archaeologist, careful not to singe myself on any still-hot ashes. Then I wiped off each pumpkin and served to my guests.
But, dear reader, I did not. I’ll admit that I’m less hardcore than I’d like to be. So I covered the filled, closed pumpkins with foil and baked in an oven for four hours. The result was fragrant, exotic and delicious, the flavour of the butter pumpkin mingling with the stew. And best of all? No bowls to clean up!
It may not be as hardcore, but it’s a great recipe, nonetheless.