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Produce Corner
October 2014

Pumpkins

Pumpkin Power
By Dennis Linden


This month’s fresh produce subject was an easy choice since eighty percent of the pumpkin supply in this country is harvested in October. So it is impossible to ignore the plethora of pumpkin displays at retailers across the country right now. This very recognizable fruit, related to the cucumber, pickle and melon, is believed to be a native-born North American, as pumpkins were a staple in the diets of the American Indian centuries before the pilgrims landed and probably originated in Mexico.

Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkin on an open fire for food; they also pounded and dried the pumpkin meat into strips and then wove them into very durable mats. The shells were also dried to serve as bowls and containers that were great for storing grains or beans.

When the pilgrims arrived, they took note of this easy-to-grow indigenous crop and the pumpkin soon became a significant part of their diets too. Because of the pumpkin’s long storage capabilities (3-6 months in a cold root cellar) the crop sustained those first colonials in their early years of struggle in a new land. The pumpkin was sometimes all that stood between these newcomers and starvation. With root cellars full of pumpkins and long wintry days of confinement around the cooking hearth, these first immigrants took the pumpkin up a notch by developing a wide variety of recipes from hearty stews and soups to tasty desserts.

In fact, the origin of pumpkin pie really sounds like a much better dish than the modern version. The Pilgrims would cut the top off of a pumpkin, scoop the seeds out and then fill the cavity with cream, honey, eggs, then spice it up with cinnamon, ginger and cloves. The top was put back on to seal the goodies and it was placed in the hot ashes of a waning cooking fire. When baked through, the blackened pumpkin was carefully lifted out of the fire; the contents were then scooped out, along with the cooked meat of the thick shell, and served like a custard. Sounds delicious and something to try for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, perhaps? Just replace those hot ashes with a pre-heated oven!

Though our Pilgrim ancestors were known as a no-nonsense bunch of Puritans, who followed a very strict set of religious rules that governed their daily lives, someone in the group was smiling because pumpkin beer was also a popular libation. The brew was a fermented combination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin. Again, sounds like a tasty beverage that might be the perfect accompaniment to that oven-cooked pumpkin custard! And if this feature is tempting you to eat and drink a Pilgrim meal, consider looking the part. Pumpkin shells were also used as a template for haircuts to ensure a round, uniform, perfectly-Puritan, finished cut. As a result of this bowl look, New Englanders were sometimes nicknamed "pumpkinheads".

Often used as an ornamental, the large Jack-O-Lantern variety of pumpkin has become the iconic symbol for Halloween that is mostly used for carving, although it is very edible. However, the smaller sweet pumpkin or pie pumpkin is best for cooking. The flavor and texture of the pie pumpkin, as the name infers, is much more suitable for baking and making soups. Even smaller are the white and orange Baby Pumpkins, which are perfect decorative components for a Fall-themed centerpiece presentation. Melissa’s also carries the Porcelain Doll, marketed as the Pink Pumpkin, which is actually only pink on the outside with a very edible orange interior. This hybrid variety is part of a nationwide cancer prevention campaign for retailers, which has been organized by its developers to coincide with the harvest of this crop. A donation to breast cancer research for every Pink Pumpkin sold will be contributed to a nonprofit organization dubbed the Pink Pumpkin Patch.

Besides the aforementioned hot ash method, cooking a pumpkin is pretty straightforward. After scooping out the seeds, which can be saved for roasting, it can be steamed, baked or microwaved before being pureéd.

Steaming Method: Cut the pumpkin into large chunks. Place pieces in a large pot with about a cup of water. The water does not need to cover the pumpkin pieces. Cover the pot, let the water come to a boil and steam for 10 to 12 minutes. Check for doneness by poking with a fork. Reserve the liquid to use as a base for soup.

Oven Method: Cut pumpkin in half. Place pumpkin, cut side down on a large cookie sheet. Bake at 350°F for one hour or until fork tender.

Microwave Method: Cut pumpkin in half, place cut side down on a microwave safe plate or tray. Microwave on high for 15 minutes or until fork tender.

Pumpkin Purée: When the pumpkin has cooled enough to handle, remove the peel using a small sharp knife and your fingers. Cut the peeled pumpkin into manageable chunks, place in a food processor and hit the purée button. Pumpkin purée freezes well and tastes so much better than canned. Like I said at the beginning of this piece, Pumpkin Power!