My favorite season is autumn. It’s colorful, invigorating, and it lends itself to a season of comfort foods. Although I must admit, that while I adore the fall produce, I’ve never really attempted cooking anything from scratch that included fresh pumpkin. Typically, I've stuck with the convenient canned version; but my editor would hear of no such thing.
Off to the pumpkin patch at the Noroton Heights Fire Station I went for my large pumpkins, and to The Gardener's Center and Florist for some smaller versions. Memories of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, came to mind, as well as my continuing frustration with carving jack-o-lanterns. The big, robust pumpkins that are great for carving, aren't so great for baking. For cooking, choose deep orange, smaller types with a smooth texture. But don't worry too much; picking out the pumpkins is half the fun.
Then it was time to choose a recipe or two. While researching, I came across some fun facts about pumpkins:
- Pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbita family, which includes squash and cucumbers
- The Connecticut field variety is the traditional American pumpkin
- Antarctica is the only continent where pumpkins cannot grow
- Pumpkin carving is an Irish tradition that originally began with turnips. It was when the Irish immigrated to the United States that they tossed the waxy turnip for its more bountiful and easier-to-carve cousin
- Pumpkins are a great source of potassium and vitamin A
- Pumpkin flowers are edible, as are pumpkin seeds
- The largest pumpkin pie ever made was over five feet in diameter and weighed over 350 pounds. It used 80 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 36 pounds of sugar, 12 dozen eggs and took six hours to bake
- In early Colonial times, pumpkins were used as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling
- Pumpkins were once believed as a remedy for snake bites and removing freckles
- The largest pumpkin ever grown weighed 1,140 pounds
- Pumpkins are 90 percent water
- Eighty percent of the pumpkin supply in the United States is available in October
Armed with my pumpkins, and more knowledge about these orange Cucurbita, I went to work.
First step was to split, de-seed, moisten, and bake the pumpkins in the oven until the flesh wrinkled, and the pumpkin softened. I scooped out the edible inside and let it sit in a strainer for a few hours to get rid of the excess water.
Fresh pumpkin is rather bland. It is not like butternut squash that has a natural sweetness. Be sure to alter the seasoning accordingly, both savory and sweet, as you will need to compensate for its subtle flavor.
A pumpkin bundt cake recipe from an old Family Circle cookbook caught my eye as an interesting alternative to traditional pumpkin bread. All of the cake ingredients were typical of a spice cake, with the added ingredient of the fresh pumpkin, which created a wonderful moist cake.
Sweet tooth satisfied, it was on to something savory. The chef in me wanted to turn out some fresh pumpkin ravioli filled with ricotta and pancetta, sautéed in brown butter and sage; but the realist in me decided to go with a creamy pumpkin risotto—with that aromatic sage and the salty pancetta, of course.
After sautéing one large diced yellow onion with a quarter pound of thinly sliced pancetta, into the pan went one cup of arobrio rice. Toasting the rice pearls helps release its starchy goodness. I deglazed the pan with a stout beer, as I find its earthiness a better match with the pumpkin over a more acidic wine deglaze. Little by little, I added heated chicken stock as the risotto soaked up all the liquid. Half way through the cooking process, in to the pan went the pumpkin mash—about one and a half cups. The pumpkin dissolves beautifully, creating a gorgeous orange tinge. Once tender to the tooth, I added a half cup of pungent Romano cheese, along with a teaspoon of nutmeg and two tablespoons of brown sugar to bring out the pumpkin flavor. My garnish of choice? A few deep fried sage leaves.
With plenty of pumpkin mash left (an average size pumpkin yields about four cups cooked mash), I got creative throughout the week. I added it to my pancake batter for a scrumptious and healthy breakfast. I even made a pumpkin soufflé as a side dish.
To try the dish yourself, combine the pumpkin with sautéed butter and onions with a little bit of flour in a food processor; once smooth add shredded cheddar cheese to taste. And now for the soufflé part. Beat egg whites into stiff peaks and fold (carefully) into the cheesy pumpkin mixture. Into a buttered soufflé dish, and on to the oven for about 25 minutes until slightly browned and a pillowy top puffs up nice and high.
From patch to table, the pumpkin experiment was a success. I don’t know why I never cooked with them before. I’ll still venture to the canned variety for those quick and easy pies, but—no trick—cooking with fresh pumpkin is a real treat.