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Pumpkins are woven into our history, myth, and lore. The hard-skinned fruits are as much a part of our cuisine as they are symbols of autumn and winter in our culture. Pumpkin pies, cookies, breads, and ice cream speak of the season, along with pumpkin soups and stews, pumpkin puree with herbs and butter or honey and ginger, and toasted pumpkin seeds. Pilgrims, pumpkins, and the first Thanksgiving in the New World are synonymous. Each year we renew our thanks and celebrate the season of plenty with feasting tables decked with pumpkins, apples, and grapes.
In American literature, the headless horseman of Washington Irving's tale terrifies the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane by hurling a head, revealed later to be a pumpkin, at the hapless master. Jack Pumpkinhead is one of the most beloved characters in Frank L. Baum's classic stories from the Land of Oz; with his sensible pumpkinhead stuck firmly on the wooden stake between his shoulders, his exploits are the marvel of the countryside. Although European in origin, the tale of Cinderella and her magical pumpkin coach has been adopted by American children for generations.
But nowhere is the lore of the pumpkin more evident than in the jack-o'-lanterns of Halloween, when eerie faces carved into pumpkins are candlelit from within, then set out to keep away the ghosts that, according to legend, return each October 31 on All Hallows' Eve. This tradition came to North America with the Irish, who immigrated to the eastern seaboard. In Irish folklore, Jack-who made a deal with the devil and then tricked him-was denied entrance to both heaven and hell, but when the devil cast him into eternal darkness he gave him an ember to light his way. In Ireland, All Hallows' Eve was celebrated by carrying an ember in a hollowed-out turnip, but in America, pumpkins replaced turnips.
Pumpkins originated in the New World, where they have been cultivated for several thousand years. Hard-skinned winter squashes, pumpkins are eaten when fully mature. Round, oval, or even elongated, they have orange flesh, while their skin color can range from orange to white, buff, red, and even bluish green.
Winter squash originated in southern Mexico and spread throughout the Americas. Pumpkins, long a staple of Native American food by the time the Pilgrims arrived, soon became a staple for the Pilgrims as well, for pumpkins were easy to grow, stored well, and provided nourishment throughout the winter.
Pumpkins have a mild flesh that lends itself to both sweet and savory treatments. In soups and stews, it takes on the flavor of broth and herbs, while in pies, cakes, and breads, it contributes moisture, lightness, and color and marries well with spices such as cinnamon, ginger, mace, and nutmeg. In savory dishes, sautéed or baked pumpkin is a ready companion to complementary ingredients such as cheese, butter, herbs, rice, and pasta.
Choosing a Pumpkin for Cooking
While all pumpkins can be used for cooking, the best ones are those with a relatively small seed cavity and thick, flavorful flesh that is fine-grained rather than fibrous. The round Sugar Pie (also known as New England Pie, Small Sugar, Boston Pie, and Northeast Pie) is one of the most common and flavorful of cooking pumpkins. Although they generally range in size from 6 to 8 pounds, smaller ones weighing 2 to 4 pounds can often be found. "Cheese" or "cheese-box" pumpkins, which are round, squat, and flattened like a cheese wheel or tall like a cheese box, are also thick-fleshed with a sweet flavor and a fine texture. Some of the commonly round varieties are Cheese, Big Cheese, and Long Cheese.
Their skin might be white, orange, beige, or even red, such as the French heirloom variety, Rouge Vif d'Etampes, sometimes called the Cinderella pumpkin because its flattened, deeply lobed shape resembles early illustrations of Cinderella's coach. The white or orange mini pumpkins that have become so popular, such as Jack-Be-Little, are also excellent for eating, though because of their small size they don't have much flesh. In France, a good cooking pumpkin is the deeply lobed, buff-colored Musqué de Provence or Muscade. It has a very small seed cavity and thick walls of bright orange, fine-textured flesh. These large pumpkins, usually 20 to 35 pounds, are sold by the wedge rather than whole.
Some of the very largest pumpkins, such as Big Max, are considered good eating, but their size makes them impractical for most home cooks.
A cooking pumpkin should feel heavy in the hand, indicating a good flesh-to-cavity ratio, and be firm, not soft, to the touch. The stem should be attached to maintain the protective integrity of the skin.
Pumpkins will store for months if kept in a cool, dry place. Once cut, they will keep a few days in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic wrap.
How to Cook a Pumpkin
Pumpkin is usually precooked before being used in a dish. This can be accomplished in a number of different ways, depending upon the desired end use. Pumpkin puree, commonly used in pumpkin recipes and to make pumpkin pie, is made by first baking a pumpkin, either whole or in halves or wedges, then pureeing the pumpkin flesh. Remember, the texture of the puree will depend on the type of pumpkin you use, with cooking pumpkins yielding the finer puree, the carving and ornamental the more fibrous. Store pumpkin puree in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
Baking Whole Pumpkins
When a recipe calls for sort or pureed pumpkin, it is easiest to simply bake a whole pumpkin. Once cooked, it is easily peeled, seeded, and mashed.
Place a whole pumpkin weighing about 3 or 4 pounds on a baking sheet and bake at 350ºF until a sharp knife easily pierces through to the seed cavity, about 1-1/2 hours. Smaller pumpkins will require less time. Remove the pumpkin and let it cool. When it is cool enough to handle, peel the skin away with a knife. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and their fibers with a large spoon and discard them. Finally, mash the flesh by hand with a potato masher, or process it in a food processor. The pureed flesh is now ready to use in recipes calling for pumpkin puree.
If you don't have time to make your own, especially if you need only a small amount, canned pumpkin puree is a good substitute.
Baking Pumpkin Halves or Wedges
Most pumpkins over 6 or 7 pounds are too large to fit in a standard oven, but they can be baked in halves or wedges. To cut the pumpkin in half, push the tip of a large, stiff knife into the seed cavity at the top of the pumpkin, next to the stem, then cut down the side to the base. Repeat on the other side. Scoop out the seeds and fibers with a spoon and discard them. To bake the pumpkin for puree, leave it in halves. To make single servings of baked pumpkin, cut the halves into wedges.
To bake pumpkin for puree, place halves, cut side down, on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F until the flesh is easily pierced with a knife, 40 minutes to an hour. To bake wedges for single servings, season them with butter and salt and pepper, or butter and brown sugar, and bake them, cut side up, at 350°F until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Remove and let cool. To make a puree, scoop out the flesh and discard the skin. Mash with a potato masher or process in a food processor.
Steaming Pumpkin Wedges, Slices or Cubes
Cut the unpeeled pumpkin into the desired size and scoop out the seeds and fibers. Place the pieces in a steaming basket and steam over boiling water in a large pot. Cover and steam until tender when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes. Remove from the steamer and let cool, then peel and use. Alternatively, cubes can be cut from wedges after steaming.
Preparing Raw Pumpkin Wedges or Cubes
To use uncooked pumpkin, usually in savory dishes, the pumpkin must be peeled first. Cut the pumpkin in half, scooping out and discarding the seeds and fibers. Using a sharp knife, peel the pumpkin halves, and then cut the pumpkin into wedges or cubes of the desired size.
Cooking with Pumpkin Blossoms
Pumpkin or other squash blossoms are either male or female. The female blossoms have a small, distinct pumpkin at the base. The male blossoms, however, simply have a stem. Either male or female blossoms may be used for cooking. Whether the blossoms are from your garden or purchased, inspect them inside before using them, as they are often home to pollinating insects. If the blossoms are closed, reopen them by submerging them in their entirety in ice water for a minute or two. The golden yellow, slightly furry stamen can be bitter, so you may wish to remove it before stuffing or otherwise using the blossoms.
Pumpkin or squash blossoms may be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic bag, and the stems of the male blossoms can also be put in a glass of water and kept in the refrigerator.
Topped with Crème Fraiche and Condiments
GINGER GIVES THIS SIMPLE PUREED SOUP A SLIGHTLY EXOTIC FLAVOR THAT IS HIGHLIGHTED BY TOPPINGS OF TANGY CRÈME FRAÌCHE, SLIVERED LEEK, AND CILANTRO FOR AN EXTRA-SPECIAL TREATMENT, SERVE IN A PUMPKIN TUREEN (SEE PAGE 36),
WITH THE CONDIMENTS SERVED IN MINI-PUMPKIN BOWLS.
cut into quarters, seeded, and peeled (see page 12)
2 large leeks, including 1-inch pale green leaves,
2-1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Steam the pumpkin until it is tender but still offers a little resistance when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes. Using a melon baller, scoop the pumpkin flesh into balls and set aside.
In a soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add all but 2 of the leek slices and sauté for 2 or 3 minutes, or until nearly translucent. Add the broth, minced ginger, salt, pepper, and pumpkin balls. Bring to just below a boil, then reduce heat. Simmer until the pumpkin is very tender, about 10 minutes.
To prepare the condiments, cut the 2 reserved leeks into very thin slices and put them in a small bowl. Put the crème fraîche and the chopped cilantro in separate small bowls.
To serve, ladle the hot soup into bowls, garnish with a spoonful of the crème fraîche, and other condiments as desired. Serves 6 to 8
Pumpkin and Black Bean Soup
BEANS AND PUMPKINS ARE A CLASSIC COMBINATION IN ITALY, WHERE THEY ARE USED IN PASTAS AS WELL AS SOUPS. THIS SOUP HAS A SOUTH-OF-THE-BORDER
FLAVOR, THANKS TO BLACK BEANS AND CHILIES.
1 large cooking pumpkin or 2 smaller ones,
2 sweet red peppers, seeded, de-ribbed and
In a large pot, combine the beans, water, 1 teaspoon of the salt, the bay leaf, thyme, winter savory, and the whole chiles. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the beans are tender, about 1-1/2 hours. Drain, reserving the bean broth. Discard the chilies, cover, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the pumpkin into wedges about 3 to 4 inches wide. Scrape out and discard the seeds and their fibers, or save the seeds for toasting (see page 23). Place the pumpkin, cut-side up, on a baking sheet and dot with the butter. Bake until very sort and easily pierced with a knife, about 1-1/2 hours. Let cool to the touch. Scrape the soft flesh from the skins.
Using a blender or food processor, in batches if necessary, puree the pumpkin with the vegetable or chicken broth and 1 cup of the reserved liquid from the beans. Pour into a soup pot and add the remaining salt and the black pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the soup is hot, about 10 minutes. Stir in the beans and cook until the beans are thoroughly hot, about 5 minutes.
To serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with the sweet peppers. Serves 6 to 8
Pumpkin Soup Topped with Croutons
BAKED PUMPKIN MAKES A RICH AND FLAVORFUL SOUP WHEN
COMBINED WITH BROTH, MILK, AND SEASONINGS.
1 small cooking pumpkin, about 3 pounds
2 leeks, white parts only, finely chopped
1/2 cup homemade or purchased seasoned croutons
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut off the stem, then cut the pumpkin in half crosswise with a sharp knife. Scoop out and discard the seeds and their fibers or save the seeds for toasting (see page 23).
Rub the cavities and cut edges of each half of the pumpkin with two teaspoons of butter, then place the halves cut-side down on a baking sheet and bake until the pumpkin is very soft and easily pierced with a fork, 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Remove from the oven and scrape the pulp into a bowl, discarding the skin.
In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter over medium heat and sauté the leeks until soft, about 6 or 7 minutes. Add the water and chicken broth and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir in the pumpkin pulp and simmer another 5 minutes. In a blender or food processor, puree the pumpkin mixture and 1/3 cup of the milk. Pour the mixture back into the same saucepan. Stir in the salt, pepper, and remaining 1 cup of milk.
Excerpted from Holiday Pumpkins by GEORGEANNE BRENNAN & JENNIFER BARRY Copyright © 2003 by Jennifer Barry Design. Excerpted by permission.
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