Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Pumpkins

As much as I love crisp air and cooler temperatures, sweaters and hot cider, the start of fall makes me a bit melancholy (unlike Mr. Autumn Man). I always feel a little sad when I pull down the last of the bean vines in the garden, or pick the last tomato before the first frost – another season over, with winter just around the corner. One thing that always cheers me up: pumpkins! I love seeing a field of pumpkins, their bright orange rinds peeking out from drying vines like happy little presents. In the fall, my house is always full of wee pumpkins and decorative gourds (yes, I'm one of those people) – their cheerful colors help me remember that spring will be here before I know it.

A Brief History

There are two different species with cultivars that are commonly referred to as "pumpkins" – Curcurbita pepo and Curcurbita maxima. Both species are incredibly diverse in size and shape. Archaeologists working in Oaxaca, Mexico discovered cultivated C.pepo seeds dating from between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, which means that pumpkin cultivation may pre-date even maize or bean domestication. Historians posit that it is even likely that C. pepo was domesticated in two different areas: once in Mexico and once in the eastern United States, as there is evidence of its cultivation in the US dating back to 4000 BCE. Pumpkin (C. pepo and possibly also C. moschata) was (and is) an important food crop to many Native American tribes; Native American cookbook author Dale Carson describes some of these preparations: "Most Indian nations have their own traditional ways to prepare or honor this ubiquitous food: Diné cooks fry it with mutton, while Taos Pueblo cooks make a succotash by cooking unripe pumpkin with corn kernels and onion. In Woodland areas, pumpkin is eaten similarly to winter squash, occasionally cut into rings to dry and be reconstituted when needed." Food historian John Mariani, in The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, notes that Native Americans introduced pumpkins to European settlers in the US, and that the Pilgrims really did serve pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving (their second Thanksgiving, in fact – in 1623).

C. maxima was first cultivated in South America (probably Peru) somewhere around 4,000 years ago. Horticulturalists note that the species was introduced to Western Europe in the 16th century, where it then spread to the rest of the world.

Factual Nibbles

  • You no longer have to wait with baited breath to see if the record for the world's largest pumpkin was broken this year: weighing in at 2,032 pounds, the largest pumpkin in the world was grown in Napa, California. For more giant pumpkins, check out this video of last year's world record breaker, which weighed 2,009 pounds (as the video proclaims: "squashing the competition"). There is something vaguely disquieting about a pumpkin that large.
  • Should you decide to grow your own giant pumpkin, of course there is an iPhone app to assist you: plug in your pumpkin's measurements, and the Giant Pumpkin Weight Estimator app will estimate how heavy it is.
  • And speaking of giant pumpkins – apparently giant pumpkin carving is an actual job. Here the world record holder talks about his giant pumpkin carving methodology.
  • And speaking of record holders, the world's largest pumpkin pie was baked in 2010 in Ohio. The giant pie weighed 3,699 pounds.
  • In the original Irish and English tradition, jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips, potatoes and beets. Settlers from the British Isles found American pumpkins way easier to carve, and thus an American Halloween tradition was born. It should be noted that traditional Irish jack-o-lanterns were super creepy.
  • Botanically, pumpkins are technically a fruit, not a vegetable.

Cultivation

Here's where things get confusing. As I mentioned above, there are two main species that have varieties that are referred to as "pumpkin" – both in the Cucurbitaceae (gourd) family: Curcurbita pepo and Curcurbita maxima. C. pepo cultivars are mostly known to us as "summer squash" – they include zucchini, yellow squash and all the other wonderful varieties of tender-skinned squash ubiquitous in the summertime. But, the orange (or sometimes white) pumpkins we use to carve into jack-o-lanterns on Halloween are also C.pepo, even though they more closely resemble winter squash in that their rind is not edible.

C. maxima varietals are commonly known as winter squash, but some varietals are frequently called "pumpkins," too – like the Queensland Blue and all of the super large pumpkins grown for competitions. As Kim O'Donnel mentioned in her winter squash post, those coming from the British Isles (or former colonies) are likely to call all winter squash "pumpkins," further confusing the matter. And just to make the botanical naming conventions even more puzzling, C. moschata, which includes butternut squash, also includes cultivars called "pumpkins," like the heirloom Long Island Cheese pumpkin and the coolest pumpkin ever – the Naples Long pumpkin. (I first spotted the Naples Long at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), where initially it was unlabeled, so I thought it was a gigantic zucchini. The BBG specimens are enormous – some at least 4 feet long. Apparently this variety is absolutely delicious.)

The bottom line: all of these varieties are botanically very similar to one another, and in reality, a great many of these "pumpkins" (and even some winter squash) taste similar to one another, too. In addition, all of them have similar growing habits – they trail on super long vines, with large-ish yellow to yellow-orange flowers. Only the leaves vary in shape. Top pumpkin growing states: Illinois, California and New York. Apparently, 90 percent of all pumpkins grown in the US are grown in the vicinity of Peoria, Illinois.

Seasonality

As you might guess, in most places, pumpkins are in season starting in the early fall.

Environmental Impact

Winter squash shows up at number 28 on the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Pesticides on Produce, so if you're concerned about pesticides on your pumpkins, talk to your local grower about his/her growing practices and choose organic when you can. (*And check out our Real Food rule of thumb, below.) Another environmental issue: food waste. So many pumpkins end up in the landfill post-Halloween. Consider purchasing an edible pumpkin variety (like a sugar pumpkin) and painting it with non-toxic, washable paint instead, then wash the paint off and eat the pumpkin! Some municipalities, local gardens and farms have fun pumpkin smashes post-Halloween to help households make composting their holiday pumpkins more fun.

Characteristics

Pumpkins vary tremendously in size in shape. The sugar pumpkin is a smaller version of the larger pumpkin varieties we use to carve into jack-o-lanterns; they have orange rinds and make great purées for baked goods. There are other varieties, like the New England Pie, that are also commonly used for purées and in desserts like pumpkin pie. Some heirloom varieties of pumpkin don't look like jack-o-lantern pumpkins at all – like the Italian Marina di Chioggia pumpkin, which is green and warty, but with orange flesh. Or the Queensland Blue, a strangely shaped pumpkin with a blue-ish rind. Whatever the variety, most pumpkins have inedible rinds and orange to yellow flesh, with large pale seeds inside. Cultivars grown specifically for jack-o-lanterns tend to have stringy, watery flesh, and so aren't really good eating.

What to look for

If you plan to cook with your pumpkin, choose pumpkins that feel heavy for their weight, indicating denser flesh. Pass on pumpkins with black or mushy spots – even one small black spot can quickly take over the entire fruit.

Nutrition

Pumpkins are positively loaded with Vitamin A – one cup of cooked pumpkin has a whopping 245 percent of your daily needs. Pumpkin is also high in dietary fiber, Vitamin C and potassium. It even has decent amounts of iron, calcium and protein. Pumpkin seeds (aka pepitas) are super high in iron, manganese and a number of other key minerals; they also contain large amounts of Vitamin K and protein.

What to Do with It

From savory to sweet, roasted to pureed, pumpkin flesh is super versatile in the kitchen. Pumpkin seeds are also extremely useful – they are a key ingredient in a couple of delicious Mexican sauces (see more below) and make great snacks. If you can get your hands on pumpkin seed oil, you'll love its strong, nutty flavor and its amazing green-red color, perfect for drizzling. You can even find beer brewed from pumpkins!

Cooking

Most of us probably think of pumpkins primarily as an ingredient in desserts (or maybe pumpkin spice lattes). Of course, there is the ubiquitous pumpkin pie, a one-crust delicacy traditionally made by pureeing the flesh of pie-type pumpkins and mixing with eggs, cream and what has now become known as "pumpkin pie spice" (usually a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger and sometimes allspice), and the millions of variations the classic Thanksgiving pie has spawned. There are also tons of recipes out there for pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin whoopie pies (the latter are my favorite – and super easy to make!).

But pumpkins should not be relegated to sweet treats – they are also delicious in savory dishes. Northern Italians are fond of stuffing tortellini, ravioli and other stuffed pasta with pumpkin purée (zucca in Italian). Pumpkin is also a common ingredient in many Asian cuisines, both sweet and savory. One of the most famous Thai desserts is pumpkin custard, cooked inside a pumpkin (or squash). Pumpkin is also used in Thai curries, especially vegetarian versions. (Here's a recipe roundup of a bunch of Asian-style pumpkin recipes.) Savory pumpkin recipes also appear in Spanish cuisine – check out Janet Mendel's blog post for a duo of sweet and savory pumpkin dishes.

But wait! There's more! Pumpkin seeds (pepitas) are delicious and nutritious, as is the oil that is pressed from them. Here are tips on roasting your own pepitas. As Mexican food expert Rick Bayless tells us in his Mexican Kitchen cookbook, seed-thickened sauces have been common in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Indeed, there are said to be seven classic moles in Oaxaca, including pipián verde (aka mole pipián, aka mole verde), pumpkin seed mole. Many of the other types of moles also call for toasted pumpkin seeds as thickeners. Pumpkin seeds make delicious, healthy snacks and additions to mixtures like granola or trail mix. They also can be turned into a seriously delightful brittle. Try drizzling pumpkin seed oil (with a light hand: it's expensive and also quite strong) on desserts – especially on vanilla ice cream. Top with salted pepitas and you have a super easy and elegant dessert.

Storage

Most pumpkins can be stored for a long time in cool, dry conditions – up to a month or longer. Check out Leda Meredith's tip for long-term storage of pumpkins and winter squash (up to three months!): she outlines how to "oil-buff" to reduce the chance of rot.

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

I have been intending to make Janet Mendel's Spanish pumpkin jam for years (her book, My Kitchen in Spain, is a treasure trove of pumpkin and other delicious Spanish recipes) – it keeps for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. Maybe this year will be the year I actually get around to making it! Leda Meredith also has several other preservation methods for pumpkin and winter squash, including detailed instructions on how to freeze, dehydrate and can pumpkin and winter squash.

Recipe

Warm Farro Salad with Roasted Pumpkin, Pepitas and Pumpkin Seed Oil

I love grains and winter squash or pumpkin together. In this case, the sweetness of the pumpkin pairs deliciously with the nutty farro and the crunch of pumpkin seeds (pepitas). I always roast winter squash and pumpkin with their skin-on, rather than attempting to peel before cooking. It is so much easier to peel the pieces after they are roasted – just use a very sharp paring knife to separate the flesh from the skin. Other fresh herbs – like parsley or mint – or a pinch of cayenne would also taste lovely mixed in at the end. Omit the cheese to make this dish vegan.

Note: If you can't find pumpkin seed oil, sub extra virgin olive oil.

Ingredients:

12 small sugar or other cooking pumpkin
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup farro
13 cup roasted pepitas (roast your own or store-bought)
2 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil (see note above)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 ounce ricotta salata or mild feta, crumbled (optional)

Procedure:

  1. Preheat oven to 400F.
  2. Remove seeds and gently scrape any stringy bits from the flesh of the pumpkin. Cut pumpkin (with skin) into pieces about 3 inches long (any shape is fine).
  3. Place pumpkin pieces on a large baking sheet. Toss with extra virgin olive oil and a generous pinch of kosher salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and freshly ground pepper.
  4. Roast on baking sheet until the flesh of the pumpkin pierces easily with a knife, but still feels firm, about 25-30 minutes.
  5. While the pumpkin is roasting, cook the farro: bring a medium pot of water to boil. Add a generous pinch of salt and the farro; stir. Boil gently over medium heat until the farro is tender (time varies, so taste the farro before you drain it: it should be tender but still firm to the bite), about 25-30 minutes. Drain and return to the warm pot.
  6. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and let cool slightly. Peel and cut into 1-inch chunks.
  7. In a small bowl, whisk together the pumpkin seed oil, red wine vinegar and a pinch of salt.
  8. In a serving bowl, combine the peeled, roasted pumpkin chunks and warm farro. Drizzle on the vinaigrette and toss gently. Taste and add additional salt, if necessary. Top with pepitas, cilantro and ricotta salata. Serve while warm or at room temperature.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)

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