Not Just for Halloween
by: Marianne R. Stanton
photography by: Stephen Conroy
BRIGHT ORANGE PUMPKINS decorate our farmstands from September through Thanksgiving, and beginning in October families start selecting the biggest, roundest, most perfectly-formed pumpkins for doorstep display, eventually to be carved into a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween. Pumpkins are, after all, the iconic symbol of fall.
But how many people actually associate pumpkins with the dinner table?
Of course, our Thanksgiving sideboards are laden with pumpkin pies for dessert, but there is a world of culinary possibilities with the pumpkin, if only we took the time to explore.
Pumpkins are indeed a fruit, but lend themselves to savory recipes. Originating in Central America, strips of pumpkin were roasted by Native Americans over an open fire, much as they roasted squashes, also indigenous to the Americas.
Pumpkins lend themselves to use in soups and stews. Think of the savory butternut-squash soup enjoyed this time of year, sometimes combined with tart apples and seasoned with curry, or puréed and combined with a touch of cream and topped with a swirl of cider crème fraîche, and you have a first course for a late-fall feast.
Most people use canned pumpkin purée when making breads and pies, and that’s just fine. But when you are flipping through recipes that incorporate pumpkin into stews and tarts, you’ll want to buy a whole pumpkin. Take care, however, in choosing. The big pumpkins we choose for carving jack-o'-lanterns are not suitable for cooking. They tend to be watery and stringy and lacking flavor. Look instead for the smaller and rounder pumpkin varieties with names like Sugar Pie, Cheese and Baby Bear.
A benefit of cooking using a whole pumpkin is the harvest of seeds from the center of the fruit. When you scrape out the center in preparation for cooking, separate the seeds from the fiber, rinse, dry and set aside. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Toss the pumpkin seeds with a tablespoon or two of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, or cinnamon sugar, and roast for 5-7 minutes. Cool and enjoy. Pumpkin seeds, like all seeds and nuts, are loaded with nutritional benefits.
Once the center of the pumpkin has been cleaned out, the flesh can be cut up into chunks for soups and stews or other uses. I love the recipe we have featured here for a pumpkin and lamb stew with chickpeas and sweet and savory spices. Lamb is such an under-used meat for stewing, but it should be reconsidered as it has a richness that beef stews do not. This recipe features the stew ladled over couscous, which we have made more interesting with chopped, dried figs, giving it a Middle Eastern flair.
I also like the simple chicken stew, with corn and peppers, served up in a preroasted pumpkin shell. The benefit here is that once the stew is ladled out, you can dig into the side of the shell and serve up some roasted pumpkin alongside the stew. A crusty baguette from Nantucket’s Petticoat Row Bakery or Wicked Island Bakery would be a nice accompaniment and round out the meal here.
One of the more innovative recipes featured here is pumpkin combined with Swiss chard, a leafy green vegetable I just love, with ricotta and pulled together with a light custard base in an open-face tart. This is a great light lunch or first course. It would also look nice on the Thanksgiving buffet table and is a nice option for lacto-ovo vegetarians who are bypassing the turkey.
If you are looking for a pumpkin-inspired sweet, one of my favorites is the muffin recipe I developed for my kids when they were younger. Featuring chunks of Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate, walnuts and candied ginger in a pumpkin base, this is as good a snacking muffin as it gets. I would make a dozen for breakfast and by the end of the day the pan was empty.
We also feature a Down East pumpkin-pie recipe here, which varies a bit from the standard recipe on the back of the One Pie can which uses evaporated milk. This rendition features fresh pumpkin (canned can be substituted), whole milk and spice. I like to bake my Thanksgiving pies the night before in order to let the pumpkin be fully set and, more importantly, to make my morning of cooking more leisurely and to keep the oven free for the turkey.
Pumpkin spice cake, with or without nuts, is a fancy dessert cake if frosted, or a simple snacking cake if left plain. Make this and your kids – or you – will likely devour it over the course of the day. Its source is from one of my standby cookbooks, a gem for its historical perspective and wisdom it imparts: “James Beard’s American Cookery.” This is one of the first cookbooks I ever bought, back in 1972, from a store on Nantucket called The Pantry Shelf, which then became Tonkin’s on the corner of Federal and Main. I refer to Beard often. Its pages are spattered with remnants of recipes I’ve made, its cover is faded and torn, the spine broken – all the marks of a well-used volume.. ///
Marianne Stanton is editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s weekly newspaper, and Nantucket Today. She writes frequently about food and travel.