It’s the Great Pumpkin! Rich in history and flavor, fall’s most festive squash is the perfect addition to any meal.
Perfectly smooth and round or lumpy, bumpy and oblong, these brilliant orange, globelike gourds are a sure sign of fall. For most of us, pumpkins bring promises of Halloween jack-o’-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies. But don’t relegate these beauties to your front porch or a once-a-year dessert. Pumpkins and their related squash cousins are rich in nutritional value, history and have many delicious culinary uses.
The first pie
Pumpkins are thought to have originated in Central America, with seeds found in Mexico dating back to 5,500 B.C. The Native Americans were growing and eating pumpkins when the first Europeans arrived, and the early colonists were introduced to a new food source. The Native Americans ate pumpkins roasted or boiled, and also used the seeds and oil for medicinal purposes. The shells were dried and cut into strips which were woven into mats. With a hardy exterior which made them resistant to spoiling, pumpkins were a valuable food source that could be stored over winter when other foods were scarce.
Folklore has it that the pilgrims hollowed out pumpkins, added milk, honey and spices, baked them in coals and this “pie” was part of their Thanksgiving feast. Whether this happened the first or second year after the pilgrims arrived is not certain, but culinary history tells us it was probably another 50 years or so before a traditional pumpkin pie with a crust became a staple on the early settlers’ Thanksgiving table.
Around the world
Americans aren’t the only ones who love pumpkins. Pumpkins appear in sweet and savory dishes on tables around the world. Italians use pumpkin for ravioli filling and prepare stuffed pumpkin and squash blossoms. Pumpkins appear in Moroccan tagines and couscous dishes, as well as in sweet preserves. In Chinese cooking, the leaves of the pumpkin plant are cooked as a vegetable and also served in soup. Pumpkins appear in Thai curries, and in India several varieties are commonly used in festival dishes.
In his book “Olive Trees and Honey,” author Gil Marks explains the significance of pumpkins in Jewish culinary history as well. “The pumpkin, due to its many seeds, is a symbol of fruitfulness and bounty, and therefore, traditional Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot fare,” he writes. From the beginning of the 16th century, pumpkins can be found in Jewish recipes, prepared in a variety of savory and sweet dishes.
Pumpkins are a vegetable belonging to the gourd or curcurbitaceae family. Some of the more well known species in this family are acorn, butternut and spaghetti squash. High in alpha and beta-carotene, vitamins C and E, potassium and magnesium, pumpkin packs a solid nutritional punch. In addition, pumpkin is high in fiber and low in calories, earning a spot on Dr. Steven Pratt’s list of superfoods. “It is inexpensive, available year-round in canned form, incredibly easy to incorporate into recipes … all in all pumpkin is a real nutritional superstar,” Pratt writes in “SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life.”
Pumpkin seeds are also a healthy snack choice. Spokane’s Fresh Abundance organic food store owner BrightSpirit Hendrix says “one of my favorite things to do with pumpkins is roast the seeds.” She recommends rinsing the pumpkin seeds in warm water to remove as much pulp as possible, and then drying them. Toss the seeds with a little vegetable oil and salt and roast them on a baking sheet in a 350 degree oven until the seeds are lightly browned, swirling them often so they don’t burn, about 30 minutes.
Choosing and storing winter squash
When choosing a pumpkin for cooking, look for smaller varieties such as sugar or pie pumpkins, which tend to be denser and sweeter than the larger ones. The large pumpkins grown for Halloween jack-o’-lanterns have larger seed cavities, thin walls and not as much flavor. French Red, Japanese Kabocha and Long Island cheese pumpkins all work well in recipes calling for fresh pumpkins, as do acorn, buttercup and butternut squash. You can find several of these at your favorite supermarket, and butternut squash is often available year-round.
Chef Tim Hartman of Vin Rouge restaurant in Spokane loves to cook with pumpkin. “Fall is one of my favorite times to cook … I love the great flavors of pumpkin, pears, apples and the spices that go with them,” he says. Hartman finds that canned pumpkin is a perfectly acceptable substitute in many recipes calling for fresh pureed pumpkin. Canned pumpkin offers a more consistent product than fresh pumpkin, the flavor of which is subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
When choosing a pumpkin, look for one that is heavy for its size, free of soft spots or mold, and still has a stem intact. Store it in a cool (50 degrees is optimal), dry place, away from direct sunlight, where it will keep for three to six months, depending on the type of squash. Place it on thick pads of newspaper, and be careful not to puncture the skin, as this could cause the fruit to rot.
Slight variations in skin color are normal, and don’t be afraid of little, gray, pimple-size blemishes. “Those are called sugar warts, and they indicate extra sweetness,” explained Chrys Ostrander from Tolstoy Farms in Davenport, Wash. One of Ostrander’s favorite methods for cooking squash is to cut it in thin slices, like a potato, and fry it in a little oil until it is brown, bringing out the natural sugars. “It is a good way to get kids to eat it,” he says.
Bake, steam, microwave, and freeze
Pumpkins are adaptable to many different methods of preparations. Wash the pumpkin first and scoop out the seeds and fibers. Follow these guidelines according to your preferred method of cooking. Pumpkin is cooked when the flesh can be easily pierced with a fork.
Roasting: Cut in half or large chunks. Rub lightly with oil. Cook at 400 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes.
Steaming: Cut into pieces and place in a steaming basket or metal colander in a saucepan with just enough water to reach the bottom of the pumpkin. Bring water to a boil, cover and cook until tender, about 10 to 15 for small pieces, longer for larger ones. Peel before or after steaming.
Microwaving: This can be a real time saver. Cut the squash in half or smaller, place in microwave safe dish with 1/2 cup water. Cover with plastic wrap and cook until tender – five to 10 minutes.
Store any leftover cooked pumpkin in the refrigerator for up to a week. Or place cooked pumpkin in freezer bags and freeze for up to three months. Leftover canned pumpkin can also be frozen. Defrost and use in any recipe calling for cooked pumpkin.
The possibilities of cooking with pumpkins are endless, but here are a few recipes to get you started:
Honey Pumpkin Bisque with Cardamom Crème and Havarti Toasts
This recipe is courtesy of Vin Rouge Restaurant. Chef Tim Hartman says this dish is like “eating a warm bowl of pumpkin pie.”
1 pound butternut squash, peeled and chopped
2 ounces canola oil
8 ounces yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 gallon vegetable or chicken stock
8 ounces honey
1 pint heavy cream
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground allspice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 26-ounce can pumpkin puree
Peel and chop onion and butternut squash. In a medium-size stock pot, over medium heat add the canola oil, onions and squash. Cook for five minutes. Deglaze the pot with the stock, bring to a simmer for 20 minutes. Puree with a hand mixer or a blender and add the cream, honey, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and pumpkin puree. Bring to a simmer for five minutes. Run the hand mixer through one more time to make sure bisque is smooth and well blended. Add salt and pepper to taste, approximately one tablespoon of each.
Yield: 12 servings
4 ounces plain yogurt
2 ounces heavy cream
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine yogurt, heavy cream and cardamom in a medium-size bowl, use a wire whip and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve drizzled over bisque.
1 French baguette
2 ounces melted butter
8 ounces shredded Havarti cheese
Slice baguette on a bias, so that the length of the toasts are approximately 4 to 5 inches. Arrange on a baking sheet and paint on the melted butter. Evenly spread the Havarti cheese on top of the baguette. Place in a 350 degree oven, cook until golden brown. Serve with bisque.
Pumpkin Bread Pudding
This recipe is courtesy of Chef David Blaine at Latah Bistro
2 cups half and half
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
6 extra large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 tablespoons brandy
Pinch ground cloves
1-1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 cups of small, diced bread chunks
Heat half and half with sugar until the granules dissolve. Remove from heat and whisk in remaining ingredients. Place 2/3 cup small, diced bread chunks into individual shallow ramekins. Pour about one cup of liquid mixture over each ramekin. Let the bread soak up the batter, pushing the bread into the liquid to get it evenly covered. The tops of the bread should stick out over the liquid. Cook in a 350 degree oven in a water bath (see note). They are done when they puff up and look slightly toasted – about 25 minutes. Serve with cinnamon whipped cream (whip one cup heavy cream, one tablespoon sugar and one teaspoon cinnamon in a cold bowl until stiff peaks form).
Yield: 4-6 servings.
Note: To cook the ramekins in a water bath, put them in a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish and place in oven. Carefully pour boiling water into casserole dish so the water covers about one third of the way up the ramekins.
Moroccan Spiced Pumpkin Mash
This recipe is courtesy of Chef Debbi Collins at CaPear Catering
10-12 pound pumpkin
1 cup cream or chicken broth, warmed
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2-3 teaspoons Moroccan Spice Mix (1 tablespoon cumin plus one teaspoon each: coriander, onion powder, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, turmeric. Mix and set aside)
Turn oven to 400 degrees. Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds. Lightly oil the pumpkin flesh and place on a cookie sheet flesh side down. Roast approximately 20 to 30 minutes, or until the pumpkin is fork tender.
Remove the roasted pumpkin from the shell and put in a food processor or mixing bowl. Add the butter and enough cream or broth to make the mixture the consistency of mashed potatoes. Add the fresh ginger and 2 to 3 teaspoons of the Moroccan Spice Mix (to taste). Lightly salt.
Yield: 4-6 servings.
Pumpkin Risotto with Crispy Pancetta and Sage Brown Butter
This recipe is courtesy of Chef Anna Vogel at Luna Restaurant
3 cups pumpkin flesh, peeled and cubed
4 shallots, chopped
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 teaspoon powdered saffron (optional)
1 cup dry white wine (or substitute water or stock)
1/3 cup fresh sage leaves
10 slices of Pancetta
1/3 cup grated Parmesan Reggiano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Wrap cubed pumpkin in foil and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Puree pumpkin and set aside. Sauté shallots, add rice and saffron and cook two to three minutes over moderate heat stirring frequently, add enough wine and stock to cover rice. Repeat wine and stock process stirring constantly until all the liquid has been absorbed (about 15 to 20 minutes). If you run out of stock, add hot water. Add the pumpkin at the end. While the risotto is finishing cooking, bake the pancetta slices in a 350 degree oven for about seven minutes or until crispy. The risotto should be thick and creamy in consistency and just a little runny. When done remove from heat. Melt the butter in a pan on medium high heat. Add sage leaves. Stir until butter become brown. Pour over risotto and crispy pancetta, finish with parmesan and salt and pepper to taste.
Yield: 6 servings.
Ginger-Pumpkin Ice Cream
This recipe is from “Pumpkin: A Super Food for All 12 Months of the Year” by DeeDee Stovel
1 quart creamy French vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
1 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon minced crystallized ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Thoroughly mix the pumpkin, sugar, ground and crystallized ginger, and nutmeg together. Fold in the ice cream until the mixture is all one color. Pack it in a freezer container and store in freezer. Allow to soften slightly before serving.