by Tara Mataraza Desmond
Pumpkins are fixtures in the decorative backdrop of the fall season, but their culinary purpose far exceeds their ornamental role. They share a branch of the gourd family tree with their winter squash cousins and can be used in recipes exactly as squash are.
When sweetened with molasses or brown sugar, and spiced with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove, pumpkins’ natural sugars and moisture are put to good use in favorites like pies, cakes and breads. In the absence of those expected, albeit wonderful associated spice combinations and sweeteners, pumpkin does a bang up job of proving its worth in savory dishes, too. Earthy, sometimes nutty and subtly sweet, pumpkin textures can vary from assertively meaty to smooth and thick. Pumpkin is a natural partner for root vegetables and winter greens and complements flavors from cuisines with roots far from our American Thanksgiving table.
Try pumpkin with:
- Lemongrass and coconut for Asian-inspired dishes
- Garlic, oregano, Parmigiano-Reggiano and bread crumbs for tastes fit for an Italian meal
- Cumin, coriander and chiles for traditional Mexican flavors
- Garam masala, lamb and potatoes for a braised stew with an Indian twist
There are countless varieties of pumpkins, including treasured heirlooms, but the most widely available are Jack O’Lantern (the big ones prized for Halloween carving) and Sugar Pies (the cute little tabletop ones). For cooking, choose the smaller sizes, 2 to 5 pounds each. Their skin is thinner and easier to remove and the flesh is sweeter, more tender and less stringy.
Pumpkin seeds are as useful and delicious as the flesh. Toasted and salted, they’re great for snacking (with hot cider!) or sprinkled on top of soups or salads. In Mexican cuisine, where they are called pepitas the seeds are pulverized and used to thicken sauces like moles.
With enough space and plenty of sunshine, pumpkins will grow in a home garden. They should be planted in late spring and harvested in early autumn. Pumpkins will not tolerate the frost. If you didn’t grow your own, buy them up at farmers’ markets and grocery stores, or pick your own. Local farms and orchards are open to the public for pumpkin picking where you can walk amidst the patches of sprawling vines from which they grow. Plus there are usually cider donuts and hayrides. Check out these in the Philadelphia area:
- Linvilla Orchards [Media, PA]
- Snipes Farm [Morrisville, PA]
- Shady Brook Farm [Morrisville, PA]
- Active Acres Farm [Newtown, PA]
- Winding Brook Farm [Warrington, PA]
- None Such Farm [Buckingham, PA]
- Springdale Farms [Cherry Hill, NJ]
Or go to pumpkinpatchesandmore.org to search for other area farms.