While our immediate pumpkin associations are pie, Jack-O-Lanterns and increasingly, fall-flavored spiced lattes, the autumnal gourd is a whole lot more versatile than that. Part of a family that includes squash, cucumbers and melons, the seed-filled fruit (yes, fruit!) comes in a seemingly endless series of colors, shapes and sizes, from orange to green to white to blue, and from round and massive to flat and tiny, as well as pear shaped, crook-necked, warty or smooth.
Long looked to as an important food source as well as an all-purpose item (the skin was dried and woven into mats, and the dried, hollowed shells became bowls), the Native Americans introduced hearty pumpkins to the Pilgrims, who in turn, fermented them into beer, or baked them into custard. And they remain one of the most popular crops in the United States, with over 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkin produced each year. Popular pie varieties include the heirloom Cinderella or the oblong, fine-grained Pink Banana; the orange and green-striped Kakai is prized for its toasty, hull-free seeds; the Red Kuri or Kabocha (which has edible skin) are ideal for soups and stews, the rightly-named Sweet Meat makes an excellent addition to cakes, cookies or breads, and speckled, palm-sized Carnivals are so cute and attractive, that they can be presented whole roasted or stuffed.
So how are chefs making use of autumn’s bountiful pumpkin harvest? You can actually drink your gourds at the West Village cocktail bar, Analogue; their “Crane’s Fiction” features rye, egg, and housemade pumpkin cordial. And at the recently relaunched Rouge Tomate, they whip their pumpkin into a highly seasonal Hummus, and serve it with raw and cooked hunks of the savory fruit. At Ravi DeRossi’s entirely vegan tapas bar, Ladybird, you’ll find candied blossoms adorning a lobe of orange blossom honey-drizzled Burrata, and the critically-adored Olmsted uses wholly edible Delicatas as “vases,” housing salty speck and pear.
Succulent, starchy pumpkin lends itself beautifully to curries; in fact, one of the bestsellers at the Van Leeuwen team’s Indonesian restaurant, Selamat Pagi, is Kabocha Coconut Curry with Thai basil, pumpkin seeds and rice. And of course, it’s a go-to ingredient for dessert and not only pie; at Little Cupcake Bakeshop, pumpkin spice makes a (non latte) appearance in cupcakes, along with layer cakes, cheesecakes, and silky smooth bars.
So we’re generally knowledgeable when it comes to picking Jack O’ Lanterns, but how do you select other types of pumpkins for at-home consumption? First of all, look for “pie pumpkins” or “sweet pumpkins.” These are smaller than the large jack-o-lantern variety, and the flesh is sweeter and less watery. Choose a pumpkin with 1 to 2 inches of stem left. If the stem is cut down too low the pumpkin will decay quickly or may be decaying at the time of purchase. Avoid pumpkins with blemishes and soft spots. And while they should be heavy, shape is unimportant. A lopsided pumpkin is not necessarily a bad pumpkin!
When you bring your pumpkin home, display it out of the direct sun. This will prolong its color and its quality. It also should be displayed in an area where it is protected from frost. If it’s out in the open, and the temperatures are only a few degrees below freezing, a towel or blanket placed over it at night will do the trick.
Never place a pumpkin directly on a wooden table top or on the carpet. It can soften on the blossom end and weep pumpkin juice. Even if it doesn’t weep, the moisture in the shell can damage wooden surfaces. A hard nonporous surface can cause your pumpkin to age prematurely. Ideally put a cloth or a circle of cardboard between your pumpkin and the surface you are displaying it on. A fabric placemat with a plastic placemat placed discreetly underneath works well.
Before cooking your pumpkin, cut it open and remove the seeds and stringy material. Cut into wedges or halves depending upon cooking method chosen, such as boiling, steaming, or baking. But keep in mind that early every part of the pumpkin can be eaten. The blossoms are excellent breaded and fried, or used as sandwich wraps. Oiled, tossed with salt or spices and roasted, the seeds make a great snack. And the cooked pulp is fabulous in baked goods, appetizers, main dishes . . . the list goes on and on! Puree with stock and cinnamon into a creamy soup, or chunk and toss with black beans and ground meat for a great chili (don’t forget to use the shells for serving!). Use as a stuffing for ravioli or cannelloni, drizzled with a sage and brown butter sauce. Dissolve into risotto, or bake into waffles and muffins. Churn into ice cream, or stuff with sausage and rice. Cut into sticks, for healthy oven fries, or layer thin slices inside of a quiche or tart, or on top of pizza. Form into veggie burgers, or incorporate into salad. Or best of all, ditch the can, and make a killer Thanksgiving pie!
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