The other day I saw another sign of autumn: a smashed pumpkin lying along the side of the road, pieces scattered like the crumbs in the forest that Hansel Gretel dropped on the way to the witch’s house.
Remember Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman, in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, who bashed poor Ichabod Crane with a carved pumpkin? And year after year, pumpkins get to strut their stuff only in pies. Long a symbol of autumn in the United States, pumpkins now see the light of day primarily for ornamental reasons; in fact, 90% of pumpkins end up carved into Jack‑o‑Lanterns and the rest make their way into cans as pumpkin pie filling or purée. Yes, it’s time for a change, because this glorious orange squash‑like vegetable contributes in a big way nutritionally and with great versatilility. Pumpkins offer more to the imaginative cook than as potential Jack‑o‑Lanterns or pie.
Although Irish and Scots immigrants brought the tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack‑o‑Lanterns to the United States, the pumpkin is a true American. Tracing its long family tree back to at least 3000 B.C., the pumpkin and other squashes probably originated in the Tamaulipas Mountains in central Mexico. Along with beans, chilies, and corn, pumpkins formed a major part of the early Mexicans’ diet. By 1000 B.C. the pumpkin arrived in North America, and by 1620, the native Americans developed sophisticated recipes and uses for the pumpkin. A popular native American recipe was a type of pudding sweetened with maple sugar, which the Pilgrims transformed into a more English‑style custard pie. The natives used pumpkin shells, where Jack later put his wife and kept her very well, as containers for food or water. Pumpkin seeds turned out to be the real treasure, however, for their oily and protein-rich seeds provided fats and protein sorely lacking in native diets. Even pumpkin blossoms appeared as occasional delicacies, either fried in bear grease or stewed with chilies.
Pumpkin blossoms are still prepared with chilies in Mexico, where they are eaten with tortillas. Cooks in northern France make a savory pumpkin tart with onions, while Peruvians eat pumpkin fritters spiced with anise. Stews made with meat and pumpkin chunks can be found in South Africa, Morocco, and Brazil. In the United States, some daring chefs are trying new and untraditional uses for pumpkin. For example, Los Angeles chef Wolfgang Puck includes “Pumpkin and Oyster Stew” in his cookbook. And a few years ago, a pumpkin cookbook boasting eighty-six recipes‑‑–from appetizers to desserts-appeared in every cooking magazine in the country, illustrating the power of advertising.
So, start rethinking pumpkin. Breaking with tradition is hard to do, however. Begin slowly, by trying “Caribbean Cream of Pumpkin Soup” and “Pumpkin Muffins”. Use either canned pumpkin purée or make your own purée: cut the pumpkin in half, scrape out the seeds (save them to roast later) and strings, and bake the pumpkin in a greased pan for about an hour at 325 degrees F. Scrape out the cooked pumpkin and purée it in a blender or food processor. For the smoothest purée, press the purée through a sieve before using it in a recipe. Freeze extra purée for future recipe experiments.
But hurry, for the frost will soon be on the pumpkin.
One‑half cup of pumpkin has only 38 calories. Pumpkin is an excellent source of Vitamin A. Vitamin C, iron, and potassium are also found in substantial amounts in pumpkin. For salt watchers, pumpkin is naturally low in sodium.
CARIBBEAN CREAM OF PUMPKIN SOUP
4 T. unsalted butter
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1 slice of ginger root, the size of a silver dollar
1 3/4 cups (or 1 lb. can) pumpkin puree
6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 1/2 t. salt or to taste
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t. hot pepper sauce
1/4 t. allspice
1 1/2 t. curry powder
1 cup light cream (or milk)
Thin slices fresh hot green pepper for garnish
Fry the onions in the butter over medium high heat until onions begin to brown slightly, toss in the piece of ginger, and continue frying for another minute. Pour in the pumpkin and the stock, stir together, and add the spices. Simmer soup on low heat for 1 1/2 hours or until onions “melt” when pressed with a spoon. [Soup may be prepared ahead up to this point; cover and chill overnight.]
Remove the slice of ginger. Put soup in food processor or blender and purée. Heat through and add the cream/milk. Do not boil. Taste for seasoning. Serve garnished with thin slices of hot pepper.
SPICED PUMPKIN MUFFINS
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup maple syrup (real, if possible)
1 cup pumpkin puree
2 cups flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking soda
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. allspice
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. grated nutmeg
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Granulated sugar for garnish
1. Grease muffin tins and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Mix together butter, sugar, syrup; add pumpkin and eggs. Beat batter until it is light caramel in color.
2. Mix all the dry ingredients together in a medium mixing bowl and add to the butter mixture. Stir until dry ingredients are just incorporated and then quickly fold in the walnuts.
3. The batter will be stiff. Carefully fill muffin tins 2/3 full with batter. To smooth tops of muffins, wet your fingers and gently smooth out the tops. Bake for 15 minutes, remove from the oven, and quickly sprinkle with the sugar. Return muffins to the oven and bake for 5 more minutes or until muffin centers are no longer soft. Serve muffins warm with beef stew or chicken soup.
© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen