Reclaiming Pumpkins as Food Rather Than Decorations
Well it looks as if fall is really, finally upon us, for the whole month that it lasts here in Baltimore anyway. The boringest World Series ever is in the books, it's dark before happy hour even starts, and supermarkets are inundated with the largest produce most consumers will ever encounter--pumpkins. It's hard to think of those massive, nutrient-filled orbs as anything more than decoration, but now that Halloween is over and Thanksgiving's a-comin', it's pumpkin eatin' season, and I'm a-hankerin' for some pie! And apostrophes!
Pumpkins are a winter squash, harvested when fully mature (possessing developed seeds and a hard rind), as opposed to a summer squash like zucchini, which are picked while still immature. As such, pumpkins are associated with the fall harvest and, through a convoluted clusterfuck of folk tales and cultural exchanges, with Halloween as jack-o-lanterns. These plant-based lanterns, or planterns, as I've just decided to call them, were originally carved from turnips. European immigrants brought the tradition here to the States, and decided that pumpkins, with their estimable girth and conveniently hollow interiors, made superior lantern platforms, thus casting them in a non-food holiday role.
Pumpkins are cucurbits, a family of plants that includes melons, squash, and cucumbers, and are native to the New World. They are very rich in vitamin A, high in fiber, low in calories, and, at least at my local grocery store, dirt cheap--2 for $7, with the largest easily weighing more than 20 pounds. This works out to a paltry $0.18 per pound, or about 80 percent less than other winter squashes such as acorn and butternut. Prices could go even lower now that the jack-o-lantern market has bottomed out.
Pumpkins suffer from rather parochial pigeonholing. Even we pumpkin-crazy folk seem to crave them exclusively during autumn, which is also the only time fresh pumpkin is stocked in most stores, unlike the aforementioned acorn and butternut squashes, which are stocked year-round. In which direction the causality points is anyone's guess, but I blame marketing. Also, other than in the case of a flavored coffee (which really has no pumpkin flavor at all, just that of its usual attendant spices), pumpkin-heads are forced to get their fix in sweet pastry form, mostly muffin and pie. Locally there is also the pumpkin bar (Eddie's of Roland Park makes good ones), which is just rectangular pie. These offerings are, again, strictly seasonal, and are usually made with canned pumpkin, as evidenced by their familiar terra-cotta hue. A couple exceptions are the occasional pumpkin ravioli (technically a pastry, I might add) or kaddo bowrani, the sweet/savory Afghan dish (a must-order at the Helmand). In my experience, both are usually bright orange in color, indicating fresh pumpkin, not canned.
Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with canned pumpkin--it's convenient, readily available, and in fact more nutritious than fresh. This last point seems counterintuitive, but a bit of research and some calls to the Libby pumpkin hotline reveal that the heat applied during the canning process, as well as the variety (Dickinson) used by Libby, give their canned product quadruple the vitamin A of raw, and about triple that of cooked fresh pumpkin. After all, canning pumpkins are bred for eating, while those at the supermarket are selected for carving and durability. Canning pumpkins may have better qualities for use as a food crop, such as sweetness and high flesh yield, but my guess is the higher vitamin A content is related to that variety's ability to survive canning with minimal color change. Vitamin A is a carotenoid, a family of pigments that are very heat-resistant--lycopene is another, and is also what keeps tomatoes red even after hours of cooking.
In any case, canning pumpkins must be put through some kind of hell, as they end up looking quite brown and sad despite all them carotenoids. Fresh pumpkins on the other hand will reward the assiduous with a sunny, creamsicle-colored final product. Also, fresh pumpkin tastes like an actual plant, with subtle, floral high notes over a rich, starchy base, as opposed to the canned, which tastes not sort of, or a lot, but exactly like baby food.
Pumpkin pies are among the easier of their ilk, since everything is just pureed together, which is important because I absolutely suck at baking. The trickiest, perhaps most important aspect of pie is, of course, the crust. I actually make a decent pie crust, having been taught by an ex whose résumé awesomely included exotic dancer and baker of a state fair blue-ribbon-winning peach pie (it's true, I've seen the ribbon). But pie crust is an involved subject deserving its own discourse, and is time-consuming in practice. Luckily, pumpkin pie is custard-based much, like cheesecake, which in my book makes it OK to use a cheesecake-type crumb crust--I use crushed gingersnaps and pecans.
Those duckpin-bowling-ball-sized pumpkins supermarkets strew about as decoration are ideal for pie-making--a four-pound fruit is enough for two nine-inch pies. Occasionally pie-specific "sugar pumpkins" are available, but I find them no sweeter than regular ones, and experimenting with other squashes yielded mixed results. Butternut is probably the best substitute if you can't find pumpkin, as its flesh is somewhat orange and in fact has more natural sweetness. But butternut squash pies tend to turn yellowish-bronze after cooking, and the flavor is kind of like a cross between pumpkin and sweet potato, a tad more serious and savory.
I've found that roasting the pumpkin results in slightly more flavorful flesh, but boiling or steaming seems to enhance its color. I recommend the latter because it's more time- and energy-efficient. However you choose to cook it, leave the rind on--pumpkin is way easier to peel after it's done. And one final tip, a secret ingredient if you will, one that I have hitherto never shared is available below.
Henry’s Fresh Pumpkin Pie
1 small 3-4 pound pumpkin
3/4 cup sugar
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon grated or very finely minced fresh ginger root
1 teaspoon each ground clove, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika*
1 cup finely pulverized gingersnaps
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
1/2 stick melted butter
Carefully cut pumpkin in half—with the pumpkin sitting stem side up on a folded kitchen towel (to minimize rolling)—insert the point of a large chef’s knife downward right next to the stem, blade facing away from your other hand, oriented along the pumpkin’s vertical axis, i.e., parallel to the stem. With the knife plunged 2-3 inches in, carefully cut downward, rolling the pumpkin as you go, until it’s cut enough to simply break open. With a large spoon, scrape out seeds and slimy fibrous tissue.
Carefully cut the halves in half again lengthwise, and then in half again across, so you end up with 8 wieldy pieces.
To boil, add pumpkin to salted boiling water and cook for 10 minutes, then drain, put in a bowl, and allow to cool while covered.
To roast, arrange pumpkin rind down on a baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 45 minutes, then allow to cool in a covered bowl.
While pumpkin is cooling, combine crust ingredients and press into a buttered 9-inch pie pan. Pre-bake the crust at 375 degrees for 15 minutes, then remove and allow to cool.
Slowly melt the 2 tablespoons of butter in a small pan, then add the spices and heat for about a minute.
The cooled pumpkin should peel easily, if not, cut rind away with a knife. Place half the flesh, or about 2 cups, into a food processor or blender. Add sugar, evaporated milk, eggs, butter/spice mixture, orange zest, and salt. Purée until smooth.
Pour filling into cooled crust, and bake at 375 degrees for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Note: When subbing butternut squash, cut the sugar to 1/2 cup, and, if following the roasting directions, bake for 50 minutes instead of 45. (You’ll also need a knife to peel the squash even after it cools.) Everything else is the same.
Tip: To amplify orange-ness, add 1/4 cup of cooked carrots to the filling before puréeing.
*Secret ingredient; please be discreet.
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