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Pumpkin makes the culinary cut

| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2002

Heaps of bright pumpkins are for sale at grocery stores and farmers markets. Does any other food remind us more that autumn has arrived?

The most common use for pumpkins is as Halloween decorations in the form of jack-o'-lanterns; however, the culinary uses for this fruit are unlimited. All pumpkin varieties are edible, although taste and texture vary.

In general, the flesh from smaller-sized "sugar" pumpkins (about 3 pounds) is sweeter, more tender and more succulent than from their larger siblings. In the United States, pies are the most popular treat made from pumpkin, although pumpkins also make fantastic breads, cakes, muffins, ice cream, cheesecake, mousse and even a puree for a savory side dish.

When pumpkin is used in sweet dishes, spices such as ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon commonly are added. In a savory dish, sage is a perfect herb to bring out the gourd's flavor.

Bo Friberg, author of "The Professional Pastry Chef" (John Wiley & Sons, 4th edition, $65), notes that pumpkins are one of several squashes that were eaten as a staple by American Indians at the time the colonists landed in America. Because of their protective shells, pumpkins kept fresh for several months in the cool climate of the Northeast.

The colonists made beer and soup from the pumpkin's flesh and toasted the seeds to enjoy as a snack. Pumpkin pies were served at the settlers' second Thanksgiving feast, and they continue to be the traditional Thanksgiving dessert hundreds of years later.

Selecting a pumpkin

Make sure there are no blemishes, decay or soft spots. Purchase one with an inch or two of the stem in place. If the stem is cut too low, the pumpkin will decay quickly.

Select those that feel heavy and compact for their size. Estimate 1 pound of raw untrimmed pumpkin for each cup of finished pumpkin puree.

You can store pumpkins whole at room temperature for about one month or refrigerate them for about three months. Once cut, pumpkin is highly perishable and should be cooked immediately.

Pumpkin varieties

  • Pie pumpkins (sugar pumpkins, sugar pie pumpkins) — The best pumpkin for baking and cooking, it is the sweetest of all the varieties. It has a smooth texture and is less watery than the larger jack-o'-lanterns.

  • Jack-o'-lanterns — Choose a smaller size for best texture and flavor. Do not forget to roast the seeds for snacking.

  • Miniatures (such as Jack B. Littles) — There is not a lot of "flesh" in these pumpkins. Many people do not realize they are edible, however, let alone consider cooking with them. Most uses of the minis are as bowls to hold another recipe.

  • Giant pumpkins: Giants tend to be coarse and have a less desirable taste than smaller pumpkins.

    Cooking fresh pumpkin

    Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Split the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds (reserve them for roasting) and the stringy pulp. Place the pumpkin halves, cut side down, on a baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour or until very tender when pierced with a fork. Cook the pumpkin until it is tender but not mushy. Spoon the soft pulp out of the shell and prepare a puree.

    Preparing puree: When the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, remove the peel, using a small sharp knife. Put the peeled pumpkin in a food processor and puree or use a food mill, ricer, strainer or potato masher.

    Pumpkin puree freezes well. To freeze, measure the cooled puree into 1-cup portions and place in containers or freezer bags. Label and date the puree and freeze for up to one year. Use the puree in recipes or substitute cup for cup in any recipe calling for solid-pack canned pumpkin.

    Toasting pumpkin seeds: Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Spread the pumpkin seeds out on a baking sheet and drizzle with vegetable or olive oil. Toss well and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Toss again. Place the baking sheet in the oven and roast the seeds for 20 to 30 minutes, until the seeds are light brown. Remove from the oven and let cool.

    Recipes


    Here are recipes using fresh pumpkin. Solid-pack canned pumpkin can substitute for fresh puree in a 1:1 ratio.

    This delicious recipe is adapted from "Holiday Pumpkins" by Georgeanne Brennan (Smithmark Publishing, 1998). The thick stew is as beautiful as it is nourishing and scrumptious — the aroma alone can evoke heartwarming memories and relax weary bones. A comforting dish, it's perfect for a brisk autumn or winter day. Other hard winter squashes can substitute for the pumpkin, if desired.


    Beef and Pumpkin Stew
    with Pomegranates

    • 1 pumpkin (2 pounds), peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
    • 3 poblano chiles
    • 1 pomegranate
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 2 tablespoons butter, divided
    • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
    • 1 1/2 pounds lean beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
    • 1 tablespoon flour
    • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
    • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, divided
    • 1/2 cup dry red wine
    • 1 cup beef broth
    • 1 cup water

    Steam the pumpkin cubes over water just until tender, for about 15 minutes.

    Meanwhile, heat a broiler or gas grill, or light a fire in a charcoal grill. Place the chiles on a broiler pan or grill rack and broil or grill until the skins are charred and blistered, for 2 to 3 minutes on each side.

    Transfer the chiles to a plastic bag, close it and let them "sweat" for about 5 minutes. Remove the chiles from the bag and slit them lengthwise. Remove the stems and seeds; using your fingers, peel off the skin. Cut the chiles lengthwise into 1/2-inch-wide strips and set them aside.

    Cut the pomegranate in half; using your fingers, remove enough seeds to measure 1/4 cup. Using a juicer or reamer, juice the pomegranate halves. Strain the juice to remove any bits of the bitter white pith. Set the juice aside.

    In a deep, heavy saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter. Add the garlic and saute for a minute or two. Add the beef and saute, stirring often, until browned on all sides, for 7 to 8 minutes.

    Sprinkle the flour, turmeric, cumin, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne over the meat. Stir the meat to brown the flour and spices, for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the red wine and stir to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the beef broth and water, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the beef is fork-tender, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

    While the beef is cooking, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add the pumpkin and increase the heat to medium-high. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne and saute until browned, for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

    When the meat is tender, add the pumpkin, chile strips and pomegranate juice. Simmer for about 5 minutes, then serve, topping each serving with a sprinkling of the pomegranate seeds.

    Makes 4 servings.


    Pumpkin Ravioli with
    Brown Butter and Sage

    By using packaged won-ton wrappers instead of making pasta, you can whip up fresh ravioli whenever you want. This recipe is adapted from "Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family" by Art Smith (Hyperion, $29.95). Sage works wonderfully with pumpkin. Serve the ravioli immediately after cooking with grated Parmesan cheese on the side, or toss with Brown Butter Sage Sauce and garnish with fresh sage.

    • Cornstarch
    • 2 (12-ounce) packages won-ton skins (50 skins each)
    • 1 egg, beaten
    • 1 quart hot chicken broth
    • Brown Butter Sage Sauce (recipe follows, optional)

      For the Pumpkin and Sage Filling:

    • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    • 1 medium onion, cut in half, sliced 1/8-inch thick
    • 2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped
    • 15 ounces (scant 2 cups) solid-pack pumpkin (canned or fresh)
    • 2/3 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
    • 1/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs
    • Salt
    • Pepper, freshly ground

    To make the Pumpkin and Sage Filling: Put the oil and onion in a medium-size saute pan. Cook the onion over medium heat until it is soft and translucent, for about 5 minutes. Add the sage and saute for 1 minute more.

    Transfer the onion to a bowl and stir in the pumpkin, Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

    To make the ravioli, dust a parchment-lined baking sheet with cornstarch. Brush the perimeter of a won-ton skin with the beaten egg. Place about 1 heaping teaspoon of the filling in the center and top with another won-ton skin. Press firmly to seal the edges.

    Place the ravioli on a baking sheet. Repeat with all the skins and filling, separating the layers of ravioli with parchment. (At this point, the ravioli can be prepared as much as 8 hours ahead, covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated.)

    Over high heat, bring a very large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Drop in the ravioli and stir occasionally to be sure they do not stick. Cook for about 4 minutes, until the ravioli float to the surface.

    Using a skimmer or wire sieve, scoop out the ravioli and divide them among soup bowls. Spoon about 1/2 cup hot chicken broth into each bowl. Or, toss the ravioli in Brown Butter Sage Sauce and top with fresh sage. Serve immediately.

    Makes 48 to 50 ravioli, 6 main-course servings or 8 appetizer servings.


    Brown Butter Sage Sauce

    • 1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
    • 2 tablespoons fresh sage, torn into tiny pieces
    • Fresh sage, for garnish

    Melt the butter in a heavy pan over medium heat. After it melts, add the 2 tablespoons sage. Continue to cook the butter, watching it carefully. It will foam and subside, then separate into golden butterfat and cloudy white milk solids.

    The milk solids will begin to brown. When they are lightly browned and the butter smells nutty and toasted, remove the pan from the heat and set aside for 5 minutes to cool.

    Strain the butter through a fine strainer to remove the larger brown bits and sage. Toss with the ravioli and garnish with fresh sage.


    Pumpkin Cheesecake
    with Caramel Swirl

    This pumpkin cheesecake makes a great holiday dessert. It is best made the day before serving. The recipe is adapted from Bon Appetit magazine, November 1993.

      For the crust:
    • 1 1/2 cups gingersnap cookies, ground
    • 1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) pecans, toasted
    • 1/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
    • 1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted

      For the filling:

    • 4 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, at room temperature
    • 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
    • 1 1/2 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin
    • 9 tablespoons whipping cream, divided
    • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
    • 4 eggs

      For the topping:

    • About 1 tablespoon bottled caramel sauce
    • 1 cup sour cream

    Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

    To make the crust: Finely grind the ground cookies, pecans and brown sugar in a food processor. Add the melted butter and blend until combined.

    Press the mixture onto the bottom and up the sides of a 9- by 2 3/4-inch springform pan. Set the pan aside.

    To make the filling: Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and granulated sugar in a large bowl until light. Transfer 3/4 cup of the mixture to a small bowl; cover it tightly and refrigerate to use for the topping.

    To the remaining cheese mixture, add the pumpkin, 4 tablespoons ( 1/4 cup) whipping cream, cinnamon and allspice. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating until just combined.

    Turn the filling into the crust (it will nearly fill the pan). Bake until the cheesecake puffs, the top browns and the center moves only slightly when the pan is shaken, for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Transfer the cheesecake to a rack and let cool for 10 minutes. Run a small sharp knife around the cake pan sides to loosen the cheesecake, but do not remove the cake from the pan. Let cool completely. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.

    Bring the reserved 3/4 cup cheese mixture to room temperature. Add the remaining 5 tablespoons whipping cream to the cream cheese mixture and stir to combine.

    Press down firmly on the edges of the cheesecake to an even thickness. Pour the cream cheese mixture over the cake, spreading evenly. Spoon the caramel sauce in lines over the topping. Using the tip of a knife, swirl the caramel sauce into the topping.

    (At this point, the cheesecake can be covered and refrigerated to serve the next day.)

    Release the pan sides from the cake. Spoon sour cream into a pastry bag fitted with a small star tip (do not stir the sour cream before using it). Pipe a decorative border around the cheesecake and serve.

    Makes 10 servings.


    Pumpkin Spice Cake Muffins

    This recipe is adapted from one in "The Olives Dessert Table: Spectacular Restaurant Desserts You Can Make at Home" by Todd English (Simon & Schuster, $35). With apple cider, pumpkin and dried cranberries as ingredients, these are perfect for autumn teatime or as a house-warming treat.

    • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
    • 3/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
    • 1 egg
    • 2/3 cup pumpkin puree or canned solid-pack pumpkin
    • 1/4 cup apple cider
    • 1 cup flour
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
    • 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
    • 1/2 cup pecans, toasted, roughly chopped
    • 1/2 cup dried cranberries

    Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour muffin tins or 5 (1-cup) individual tins.

    Place the butter and brown sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat until fluffy.

    Add the egg and beat for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides. Add the pumpkin and cider and mix well. It will look broken, but do not worry. Add the remaining ingredients and mix until just combined.

    Spread the batter into the prepared pans and bake for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan.

    Wrap and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.

    Makes 10 muffins or 5 small (1-cup) loaves.

    A pumpkin primer


  • Pumpkins are members of the vine crops family called cucurbits . Their flowers are edible.

  • Pumpkins contain potassium, vitamin A and beta carotene.

  • The gourds range in weight from less than a pound to more than 1,000 pounds. The largest pumpkin ever grown (on record) weighed 1,140 pounds.

  • The largest pumpkin pie ever made was more than 5 feet in diameter and weighed more than 350 pounds. It used 80 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 36 pounds of sugar and 12 dozen eggs, and took six hours to bake.

  • Pumpkins, which are classified as a fruit, are 90 percent water.

  • The Connecticut field variety is the traditional American pumpkin.

  • Eighty percent of the pumpkin supply in the United States is available in October.

  • Pumpkins originated in Central America.

  • The word "pumpkin" originated from pepon — the Greek word for "large melon."

  • American Indians, who called pumpkins isqoutm squash, flattened strips of the fruit, dried them and made mats. In Colonial times, they roasted long strips of pumpkin in an open fire and also used the seeds for food and as medicine.

  • In early Colonial times, pumpkins were used as an ingredient for pie crusts, not the filling.

  • Pumpkins once were recommended for removing freckles and curing snake bites.

  • Colonists sliced off pumpkin tops, removed the seeds and filled the inside with milk, spices and honey. The gourds were baked in hot ashes — the foundation of pumpkin pie.

    Source: Ron Wolford and Drusilla Banks, University of Illinois Extension College of Agriculture

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