Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Halloween is near

Halloween is in 11 days time and it's not too early to start preparing those pranks and costumes, stocking up on treats and planning about an a propos dinner.

I never really got into the Halloween trick-or-treating and I'm not a fan of horror movies. But there are a few things I do associate with Halloween – namely: "Roseanne," eggs and pumpkins.

Halloween, observed on October 31, is an annual holiday in certain countries and has roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain (celebrating the end of the "lighter half" of the year and beginning of the "darker half") and the Christian holiday All Saints' Day, but is now chiefly a secular celebration.

If you are too lazy to read about it on Wikipedia, common Halloween activities include trick-or-treating, wearing costumes and attending costume parties, carving jack-o'-lanterns, ghost tours, bonfires, apple bogging, visiting haunted attractions, committing pranks, telling ghost stories or other frightening tales and watching horror films. The colors black and orange are associated with the celebrations because of the darkness of night and the color of bonfires, autumn leaves and jack-o'-lanterns.

In traditional Celtic Halloween festivals, large turnips were hollowed out, carved with faces and placed in windows to ward off evil spirits. But the carving of pumpkins is now associated with Halloween because they are both readily available in this season and much larger – making them easier to carve than turnips.

I always associate Halloween with "Roseanne," the TV show. Starring Roseanne Bar, it ran from 1988 to 1997 and was one of the most watched in the U.S. from 1989-1990. It portrays a blue-collar American family: Roseanne, her husband Dan Connor (John Goodman), their children (Becky, Darlene, DJ and Jerry Garcia), her sister Jackie, her mother Bev and quite a few other relatives, friends and neighbors.

Among the memorable highlights of "Roseanne," are its Halloween episodes. Roseanne and Dan met at a Halloween dance and no expense is spared by the couple in making and playing practical jokes on family, friends and neighbors. In later series, more efforts were made by people to get their own back on Roseanne, including one episode I remember well of the children putting snakes in Roseanne's bed.

I'm not a TV buff, and only watch it for sports, but it was a show that tackled many taboo subjects that other shows at the time avoided, such as poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, birth control, obesity and abortion. It also was significant for its portrayal of feminist ideals, including a female-dominated household.

Halloween also justifies my dislike of eggs. A lot of trick-or-treating goes on in London, and I was always apprehensive when the doorbell rang on that night. Also, I rarely had treats to give away and usually forgot to stock up. One year, when I had moved to a new flat in Wimbledon, the building entrance door must have been left open and my door bell did indeed ring. I looked out of the eye-hole and there was a group of children trick-or-treating. I open the door and told them I only had 90% cocoa chocolate! They took it grudgingly. I went out moments later to throw the garbage and was taken aback. The entire corridor on my floor and the rest of the building's corridors had been splashed with eggs. A neighbor and I spent hours cleaning up the mess.

A variety of pumpkins (photo by Octavia Nasr)
But on a more appetizing note, there are many foods associated with Halloween: candy apple, candy pumpkins, candy corn, caramelized apples, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, roasted sweet corn... I am a great  fan of pumpkin. We often cooked it at home, mostly "pumpkin au gratin" (in white sauce and covered with grated cheese, cooked in the oven). Another favorite, which I had recently at friends’ place, is pumpkin soup.

I love soup. Maybe it's a habit I picked up from the days I lunched at school. The meal always started with soup. Thinking back, it was mostly colored water, but found it delicious, much to the nuns' delight. I would occasionally ask them if I could take some home for my dad. It's such a satisfying and comfort treat in cold or clement weather. But I rarely have soup now, given the heat in Dubai.

If you're a pumpkin enthusiast and are short of ideas for a Halloween dinner, try this pumpkin soup:

Pumpkin Soup

Ingredients (serves four)

¼ cup oil or butter
1 medium size onion minced or cut very fine
4 leeks (white part) minced or cut very fine
4 cups raw pumpkin
4 cups chicken broth (or 2 cubes)
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
Salt (none if you use chicken cubes) and pepper to taste
Croutons for garnish
Roasted pumpkin seeds for garnish

To Prepare:

Heat oil or butter in a large pot
Add onion and leaks
Cook until onion is transparent
Add pumpkin, chicken broth and cook until pumpkin is tender (30-45 minutes)
Process in food blender -- or move to a bowl and process with hand held blender -- a little at a time
Return to pot and add milk, butter, salt and pepper. If still very thick, add some hot water
Heat without bringing to a boil
Garnish with croutons and pumpkin seeds (optional)

Bon appétit and Happy Halloween!