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Pumpkins in the Pantry

by Toni Hall

The sight of pumpkins marks the beginning of the fall harvest and conjures up all sorts of fond imaginings. From shivery, scary Halloween stories to fairy tales to feasting, the pumpkin has always played a big role during the autumn months. Pumpkins mark the end of warm weather and the beginning of the holiday months—October, November and December. Personally, I find it hard to catch a breath as Halloween approaches. Parties, pumpkin patches and scary stories are everywhere!

Whether it's pies, seeds, carving or painting, pumpkins bring out the creative spirit and the child in all of us. Picking out pumpkins has become a major challenge, especially when small children and pumpkin patches are involved. But first, let's take a good look at that harbinger of autumn, the pumpkin.

History in a Pumpkinshell

Although most people associate them with squash, pumpkins are actually fruits. Pumpkins are members of the family Cucurbitacae, which includes melons and cucumbers. They have been grown in America for more than 5,000 years.

In 1584, a French explorer, Jacques Cartier, reported from what would become the northeastern part of the United States that he had found "gros melons," (translated into English as "ponpions," or pumpkins). Some kind of pumpkin was probably served at the first Thanksgiving feast. Pumpkins and other forms of squash made up one leg of the triad—maize, beans and squash—that once formed the basic diet of American Indians.

Tracking Down Jack: The History of the Jack-o'-Lantern

The Irish brought the jack-o'-lantern to America. The jack-o'-lantern legend goes back hundreds of years in Irish history. As the story goes, Stingy Jack was a miserable, old drunk who liked to play tricks. He played tricks on the Devil himself. One day, he tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree. As soon as he did, Stingy Jack carved crosses around the trunk of the tree. When the Devil was trapped in the tree, unable to descend, Stingy Jack made the Devil promise him not to take his soul when he died.

When Jack finally died, he went to the Pearly Gates and was told he was too cruel, and had led a miserable life on earth. He was not allowed to enter heaven. He then went to the Devil. The Devil kept his promise and would not allow him to enter hell.

But the Devil tossed Jack an ember from the flames of hell to help him light his way, and Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip. Without a final resting place, Stingy Jack was forced to continually roam the earth, searching for somewhere to lay his weary bones.

On All Hallows Eve, the Irish hollowed out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets, and placed lights in them to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack away. These were the original jack-o'-lanterns. In the 1800s a couple of waves of Irish immigrants came to America. The Irish immigrants quickly discovered that pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve out, so they used pumpkins for their jack-o'-lanterns, and our modern tradition was born.

Mary, Mary, Very Scary, How Do Your Pumpkins Grow?

Pumpkins grow in the field on long, sprawling vines that cover the ground. The seeds are planted in the field from the last week of May to the middle of June. After seeds are planted, they will sprout (germinate) in seven to ten days, depending on the variety. During this time, seeds need moisture and warmth. Once seeds have germinated, they will send up their first leaves, called seed leaves.

Next, the true leaves will appear. Yellow flowers (blossoms) begin to appear after the first three weeks of growth. Male flowers, which produce pollen, are seen first. About a week later, the female blossoms follow. Female blossoms are easy to spot, because they have tiny pumpkins at their base. Blossoms live for only a half-day, and will not open in cold, rainy weather. When both male and female blossoms appear on the vine, bees transfer the pollen from the males to the females. This is called pollination.

Once pollinated, the fruit at the base of the female blossom develops into a full-sized pumpkin. During this time, the plant continues to produce blossoms. The pumpkin contains seeds that can be saved to grow new pumpkins the following year. While growing, pumpkins require a lot of moisture and sunlight. It takes about 90-120 days (depending on the variety) for a pumpkin to grow after it has been planted. Pumpkins should be are picked in October when they are bright orange in color. They are actually easy to grow in your backyard garden if they have plenty of water and sunshine.

What's What in the Pumpkin Patch

Pumpkin patches are made-to-order outings for young children. Petting zoos, face painting and photo opportunities with bales of hay and ponies abound! After looking at the scarecrows and wandering through the maze, the moment comes when you have to pick out a pumpkin to take home, but in your search for the "Great Pumpkin," there are a few matters to consider and several varieties from which to choose, depending on this strange fruit's final destiny.

First of all, when you choose a pumpkin, look for tough skin. Give it the fingernail test. If you can leave a mark with gentle pressure from your nail, put it back; the pumpkin isn't ripe. To get the best results, whether cooking or carving, always start with a ripe pumpkin. Otherwise, pumpkin guts will make a very big mess of your kitchen or workspace.

The next most important thing to consider is the ultimate fate of the pumpkin. Pumpkins grown for decorating purposes are usually bigger, and have larger seed pockets and stringier flesh. And no matter how proud your children are of the pumpkin they've chosen for their jack-o'-lantern, don't give in to the temptation to cook a carved pumpkin. The cut surface is a breeding ground for bacteria. Carved pumpkins are perfectly safe to look at, of course, but dangerous to eat.

There are three basic types of pumpkin to look for:

Milk or cheese pumpkins are a creamy, pale orange color. They are squatty and flat-topped, and generally about twice as wide as they are tall. This variety is most commonly found in New England.

Sugar pumpkins, which are bright orange and very round, weigh in at about six to eight pounds. They yield a lot of flesh for their size, and have an ideal flavor and texture for cooking and eating. These pumpkins are also very popular for painting funny fruit faces because of their size.

Big Tom pumpkins are bigger, older pumpkins marketed especially for Halloween decoration. These are best left for carving since you don't get as much flesh out of them as you do with the other varieties. The gigantic pumpkins often seen as display items at county fairs and pumpkin patches are usually Big Toms.

A Pumpkin in Your Pantry

When you finally pick out a pumpkin and take it home, you'll find this creamy fruit is a breeze to prepare, as well as absolutely delicious. Cooking with fresh pumpkin is easy, and as for taste, the freshness adds a whole new depth of flavor!

For a really simple and tasty side dish, try this: pick a pumpkin, any pumpkin, cut it into pieces and use a big, sharp knife to cut off the skin. Cube it and toss the raw cubes with other vegetables such as squash, carrots and potatoes. Add salt, pepper, a dash of olive oil and a sprinkling of white wine. Roast the mixture in a 400º oven until tender (about an hour). Sublime!

Canned or Fresh: Which Is Better?

My faithful assistants are 15 years old, and after years of eating the traditional and nontraditional dishes with which we experiment in my family, they felt qualified to judge an unofficial bake, taste and savor test. I felt that they, after years of helping in the kitchen and enjoying my culinary efforts, could bake a few pies.

So, armed with ingredients, recipes and quite a few rolls of paper towels, we went into the kitchen and prepared to answer the big question: which pumpkin makes a better pie—canned or fresh?

My nephew had the canned pumpkin. It was bright orange and smelled "just as good as fresh." My niece chose to use the canned pumpkin pie mix. It was a darker brown color and tasted "pretty good." My armament included ginger, cloves, cinnamon and a six-pound sugar pumpkin.

My nephew made his pie, using a piecrust we'd perfected and the recipe printed on his can of pumpkin, creating the Classic Pumpkin Pie.

Basic Flaky Pie Crust

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening

2-3 tablespoons ice water

1. Whisk the flour and salt together in a medium-size bowl. With a pastry blender, cut in the cold shortening until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons ice water over flour. Toss mixture with a fork to moisten, adding more water a few drops at a time until the dough comes together.

2. Gently gather dough particles together into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes before rolling.

3. Roll out dough and put in a pie plate. Fill with desired filling and bake.

My niece, less intrepid than my nephew, used a little of her allowance to purchase a ready-made crust. She used the recipe on the back of her can, creating the Easy Pumpkin Pie.

Nuts and Bolts of Preparing a Pie

My niece and nephew merely followed instructions. I, however, was able to be creative in my preparation. But I have to be honest here. If you're looking for the easy way to do it, use the canned pumpkin. But though it may take more time, making a pie from that big orange fruit is more fun!

First I processed the pumpkin into puree. The following is a simple method to use when you want the pumpkin pulp mashed or pureed. Please keep in mind that one pound of pumpkin makes one cup puree. Freshly cooked pumpkin puree will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for about five days, or in the freezer for up to six months.

Pumpkin Puree

1. Place whole, uncut pumpkin on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350º for one hour or until tender, turning baking sheet occasionally. Remove from baking sheet and cool overnight.

2. Next, peel the pumpkin. After the pumpkin has baked and been allowed to cool thoroughly, you should be able to remove the peel with little effort.

3. To clean the pumpkin, remove the seeds and stringy pulp with a large spoon. Then process the flesh, using a food processor or by hand (using a potato masher), until smooth.

Then I made a pie using a recipe that has been in my family for more years than I can remember. My great-grandmother never used measuring cups. She just eyeballed the amounts until my sister and I begged her to eyeball everything into a measuring cup before she mixed.

Here it is:

Maidie's Pumpkin Pie—Grandma's Recipe

Makes two pies, plus a little extra to bake in custard cups and give to hungry grandchildren.

1 6- to 8-pound sugar pumpkin, pureed

1 cup brown sugar

4 eggs, beaten

1 cup white sugar

1/4 teaspoon cloves

3 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons ginger

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup evaporated milk

1 cup heavy cream

Combine first 8 ingredients and mix well. Combine evaporated milk and cream; heat to scalding point. Add to first mixture and mix well. Pour into shells. Bake at 350º, 1 1/2 hours.

The Proof Is in the Pie!

After sitting back, stuffed with pie, we were in complete agreement. The homemade pie won hands-down (or bellies-full, depending on how you look at it)! The Canned Pumpkin Pie was a perfect golden tan color, but the texture was a bit custard-like. The Easy Pumpkin Pie was a little darker than the others, and was a little on the bland side. Grandma's pie was perfect! It was thick and luscious without being stringy. The flavor was intense with all the spices, but the cinnamon, cloves and ginger didn't seem to overwhelm the delicate pumpkin flavor. This pie was perfection itself!

Nutritional Notes

On a more serious note, pumpkins are a great source of nutrition. They are low in calories, fat and sodium, and high in fiber. They are also loaded with vitamins A and B, as well as potassium. The seeds are very high in protein, and are an excellent source of B vitamins and iron.


Toni Hall is a freelance writer.


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