Pumpkin-Lentil Stew

For me, the scariest thing about learning to cook plant-based food was accepting that it’s more than ingredient swaps, it’s a new process. Learning vegan cooking forced me out of my comfort zone of using what I call “crutch” foods—the easy things we were all taught to reach for—like cheese, eggs, cream and chicken broth. The only way to overcome this hurdle of making foods in new ways is to practice, and if you have vegetarians or vegans coming for Thanksgiving, the time to practice is now. There are plenty of plant-based convenience foods out there today, but they aren’t always an even swap and it’s important to also know how to cook real, whole foods without needing those processed substitutes.

A couple of years ago, when Comfort du Jour was new, I went over the top with a Savory Sausage Mac & Cheese (baked in a pumpkin). It was fun to serve and tasted as good as you’d imagine. This year, I decided to do something visually similar but with all plant-based ingredients, and this is that dish.

Loaded with nutrients, satisfying and perfectly festive for fall!

Unlike my earlier creation, which was stuffed with rich, decadent cheese, heavy carbs and calorie-laden pork sausage, today’s recipe is entirely plant-based. It also happens to be free of gluten and nuts, so it’s suitable for people with those dietary restrictions, too. I start thinking about dishes like this around mid-October, because my husband’s daughter is a committed vegan, and as I see it, we can dread cooking for loved ones with dietary restrictions (and believe me, they will feel it at the table), or we can adjust in a way that is as fun as it is nutritious.

Who needs a bread bowl when you can have a pumpkin bowl?

This effort was also a reminder that a meal doesn’t have to be heavy to be satisfying; after we finished our pretty pumpkin supper, both my bacon cheeseburger-loving husband and I acknowledged that we were “stuffed” (in a good way). We didn’t miss what wasn’t in it, and no wonder, because what was in it was hearty and full of texture.  

There are three main components of this dish: roasted pumpkin (which did double duty as a serving vessel), creamy pumpkin bisque (without actual cream, to keep it vegan) and a mixture of cooked lentils and rice with sautéed mushrooms and aromatics.


If you prefer, you could swap in another sturdy winter squash, such as buttercup or acorn. If you wish to serve the stew inside the roasted squash, be sure to choose one that will sit flat on a plate. Or you could simply serve the soup in a bowl and save time by using canned pumpkin. I found it comforting to roast the pumpkin. My mini pumpkins were small—about six inches across—and I roasted them at 350° F for 45 minutes, then scraped out some of the soft pumpkin pulp when they were cool enough to handle. I was careful to keep enough pulp in the bottom of the gourd to prevent my soup from leaking, and enough along the top cut edge to keep the carved top from falling inside


The pumpkin bisque was the simplest part of this, made with the scooped-out roasted pumpkin, enough vegetable broth to blend smoothly, and a couple of other ingredients to punch up the flavor a bit. Roasted garlic adds a depth of flavor. The carrot-turmeric juice is something I bought for smoothies, and it worked great here for spice and color. And the smoked maple syrup is a fall/winter staple in my smoked maple old fashioned cocktails, and I liked it here for a slight touch of sweetness but mostly the smoke. I might have added some plant-based creamer here as well, but I never have it on hand unless I have a vegan guest coming. Honestly, the soup was great without it. If you have some almond milk, go for it!


Finally, a mixture of cooked lentils, kale, sautéed mushrooms and aromatics gave my dish all the texture and fiber it needed to satisfy our hungry bellies. I also added a portion of wild rice blend to my stew, but next time I would sub roasted Yukon potatoes for extra chunkiness. If gluten isn’t a concern, I think cooked wheat berries would also be great in this, for a little snappy texture.

This was a time-consuming project, partly because I was multi-tasking and making it up as I went along. Next time, it’ll be a breeze, especially since I’ve made a click-to-print recipe card below to guide me (yes, I make those for sharing, but I also use them myself)! Please, don’t be intimidated. Cooking is as fun as you make it. By the way, every part of this dish can be prepared in advance. Simply warm the stew and pumpkins before assembling and serving.

We scooped a little pumpkin flesh with each bite of the stew.

A word to the wise, though—if you decide to make this for a vegan guest at Thanksgiving, you might want to make enough for everyone. This is exactly the kind of dish to make the meat eaters jealous. 😉

Pumpkin-Lentil Stew

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
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This is a satisfying, autumn-themed dish that also happens to be vegan, gluten-free and nut-free. It would make an excellent main course for a vegan Thanksgiving.


Ingredients

  • 4 mini pumpkins, tops removed and cleaned (see ingredient notes below)
  • 1 bulb roasted garlic
  • About 1-1/2 cups cooked lentils (see notes)
  • 1 cup cooked wild rice blend (substitute cooked wheat berries or cubed and roasted Yukon potatoes, if you wish)
  • 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided (you’ll use a little for each thing you saute)
  • 1 medium sweet onion, chopped
  • 8 oz. carton cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into chunks
  • 1 rib celery, strings removed and chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (I used a red one for color)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • A fat handful of kale (substitute with double the amount of spinach, if you prefer)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  • 1/4 cup carrot-turmeric juice (or substitute more broth)
  • 1 Tbsp. smoked maple syrup (substitute with regular maple syrup or omit)
  • Roasted, shelled pumpkin seeds for garnish

Ingredient notes: The pumpkins I used were about 6-inches across and more squatty than round, primarily because I intended to use them as serving dishes. If you only find pie pumpkins, you may want to cut the tops a little deeper so it isn’t awkward to reach a spoon down into it at serving time. If you prefer to serve in bowls, any roasted pumpkin or winter squash will be fine, and you’ll need about 2-1/2 cups of pumpkin pulp. You could even use canned pumpkin puree, and one standard can should cover it.

I used dried brown lentils for this dish, and cooked them in veggie broth for extra flavor. To save time, purchase lentils already cooked, such as canned, or those sold by Trader Joe’s.

Directions

  1. If using canned pumpkin puree, skip to Step 3. If roasting the pumpkins, pre-heat oven to 375° F, with rack in center position. Spray or brush a small amount of olive oil inside the pumpkins and sprinkle the flesh with salt and pepper. Replace the tops, capping the stems with a piece of foil to prevent burning them.
  2. Roast pumpkins for 45 minutes, until flesh can easily be scraped with a fork. Let them rest until cool enough to handle, and then use a small spoon to gently scrape out some of the flesh, keeping about 1/2-inch intact on the bottom and sides of the pumpkins’ interiors so they hold their shape. Transfer the scooped flesh to a blender container, and set the roasted pumpkin bowls aside at room temperature.
  3. Combine pumpkin with roasted garlic (squeezed from it’s paper shell) in the blender container. Add veggie broth, carrot juice (if using) and maple syrup. Pulse a few times to combine, then puree until completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl and set it aside.
  4. Place a skillet or wide pot over medium heat and swirl in a tablespoon or more olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add onions, celery and jalapeno. Season with salt and pepper, and saute until slightly softened. Push the vegetables to one side of the pan. Swirl in another tablespoon of oil and cook the mushrooms until they become soft and give off most of their moisture. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and set it aside. Add a final tablespoon of oil to the pot and saute the chopped kale until it has wilted and softened. Adjust salt to taste. Transfer the kale to the same bowl with the other vegetables. Add lentils to the vegetable bowl and fold gently to combine.
  5. Transfer the pureed pumpkin base to the same pot used for cooking the vegetables, and place it over medium-low heat. Gently stir in about half of the lentil-vegetable mixture, then add more until the stew seems balanced to you. Add more vegetable broth if you wish, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  6. If the pumpkin bowls have cooled completely, slide them into a warm oven on a cookie sheet for about 15 minutes. Ladle the pumpkin-lentil stew into the bowls, sprinkle with roasted pepitas and serve.



Savory Sausage Mac & Cheese (baked in a pumpkin!)

Oh yes, I did. Working on Comfort du Jour has inspired me to new levels of creativity, and I’m having a great time throwing playful twists onto foods everyone already loves. I have been thinking about the humble pumpkin, and how it has been unfairly pigeonholed into the category of “sweet” foods. Does anyone even remember what pumpkin tastes like without the “spice?” This edible gourd has so much going on, nutritionally and flavor-wise, and I wanted to remind my friends that pumpkin can be enjoyed without all that sugar. My goal with this post is kind of like the old Sears campaign, except that here I’m elevating “the savory side of pumpkin.”

For some time, I’ve imagined making a showstopper like this—I’ve taken the quintessential comfort food, macaroni and cheese, and merged it with the best flavors of Thanksgiving—sausage, dark greens, onions and sage, and then stuffed the whole thing into a sweet little pumpkin. The result is as delicious as it is delightful to look at, from the creamy and comforting texture of a gruyere cheese sauce that’s been spiked with pumpkin and savory roasted garlic, to the warm and rustic flavors of pork sausage, sautéed leafy kale and twice baked seasonal pumpkin.

This turned out even better than I imagined!

To be fair, you could make this recipe with half as much mac and cheese filling as the instructions describe. I only used a third of it in my small-ish pumpkin and poured the rest into a separate casserole dish for later. On my first try, I was leery of using a larger pumpkin, though I will surely try it again. If you don’t feel up to the task of messing with the pumpkin at all, I promise the mac and cheese is worth its weight all by itself. Yum.

This was SO much fun!


These were the star ingredients of the dish, but it was the combination of all the ingredients that made it so special!


Ingredients

1 small pie pumpkin (mine was about 3 pounds)

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

1 medium onion, chopped and divided between cheese sauce and sausage filling

3 Tbsp. salted butter

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

3 oz. (6 Tbsp.) mascarpone (or full fat cream cheese)

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

1 cup freshly shredded gruyere cheese

1/2 cup freshly shredded sharp white cheddar cheese

1 whole bulb roasted garlic

12 oz. box elbow macaroni, cooked to al dente stage

8 oz. seasoned bulk pork sausage (mine had sage and black pepper)

2 heaping cups fresh kale leaves, washed and chopped

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend to top the filling mixture


Instructions

First, I prepped the pumpkin for roasting, which was pretty simple. I followed the same steps as when making roast acorn squash.


The next step was the béchamel, my go-to base for any mac and cheese recipe. You may remember this part from my first recipe post, or from one of my leftover creations, such as my version of mac and greens or the ultra-decadent mac and cheese waffles. Once you master a béchamel sauce, the possibilities are endless. 🙂


My cheese sauce made me very happy. I took a spoonful into the den for my husband, Les, to taste, and he immediately loved it as well. But here’s where things took a slightly disappointing turn. Remember the cute little pumpkin pastas? Well, they were pretty much a mess. In addition to their thick, heavy texture (and the fact that all the pieces fell apart), the primary flavor was starch. I was not having it. You guys know I get pretty excited about the specialty items at Trader Joe’s, but this one was decidedly not a winner. Thankfully, we have another supermarket very near the house, and I hightailed it over there for some dependable elbow macaroni. I’m not willing to “settle” when I’m trying to make a special dish, you know what I mean? 🙂


Moving along to the sausage, and this part was easy! I browned the sausage in a skillet, using a little vegetable broth to assist with breaking up the larger pieces. I added the chopped onion and then the kale, and cooked until the onions were tender and the kale was wilted, but still bright green. It smelled amazing in my kitchen!


From here, the assembly was a cinch. I cooked up my elbow macaroni to al dente stage, which is just shy of done, and still a little resistance to the bite. Thankfully, this pasta came out perfect! Fold in all of the creamy cheese sauce (even if it seems like too much), and then fold in the sausage mixture. I spooned as much of the mac and cheese as would fit inside the roasted pumpkin, and the rest went into a casserole dish for another meal. How much do you wanna bet I end up putting the leftovers in the waffle iron?


The stuffed pumpkin went back into the 350° F oven. It roasted for about 45 minutes, then I turned off the oven and left it alone while we finished a Zoom call with friends. Honest to goodness, this turned out better than I dreamed it would. The flavor was exceptional, and it was so pretty and just plain fun!

This was creamy, satisfying, and absolutely brimming with savory fall flavors!

Want to make this fun fall recipe?

Follow the steps and instructions above, or download and print a copy for your recipe files.