a test kitchen dossier
I’ve learned there are three things you don’t discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.
– Linus, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Etymology: Alteration of obsolete pumpion, from obsolete French pompon, popon, from Old French pepon, from Late Latin pepon, from Latin, watermelon or gourd, from Greek, ripe, large melon.
Area of Origin: North America, specifically southern Mexico.
Such a happy little friend is the bright orange pumpkin. He makes us think of jack o’ lanterns, fairy tale coaches, Ichabod Crane and even the Land of Oz. However, we rather like to eat him instead! Botanically, pumpkin is usually listed along with summer squash, but because it has a harder exterior and more solid flesh than zucchini, yellow, and other varieties of summer squash, it is typically grouped in with winter squash. Unlike winter squash, however, pumpkin is usually available just in the early autumn months; of course, this might have more to do with the market demanding pumpkins in October, when the vast majority of larger pumpkins go for decoration and for jack o’ lanterns! Pumpkin, like other orange colored vegetables, is high in beta–carotene.
Pumpkin seeds dating as far back as 7000 BC have been found in Mexico, and references from other continents can be found in the evolution of the pumpkin’s name from Latin, Greek and Old French. In North America, however, the pumpkin’s use is most well known.
Native American Indians used pumpkin as a staple in their diets centuries before the pilgrims landed, and made use of all parts of the pumpkin in their daily activities. They dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats, roasted long strips for eating, and used their flesh in recipes both savory and sweet. Interestingly enough, the origin of pumpkin pie is thought to have occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and then filled it with milk, spices and honey. The pumpkin was then baked in the hot ashes of a dying fire (Source: www.pumpkinpatch.com).
Look for a hard rind with a firm stem and a bright orange color. The best pumpkin is like a gem: It should be perfect, deep and vibrant in color, and the surface should be smooth with no soft spots or cracks. When knocked, it should have a pleasant hollow “thump,” and be heavy for its size (which indicates a good ratio of flesh to inner cavity).
There is no significant difference in taste between large and small pumpkins, and although large pumpkins are prized at state fairs and for the scariest jack o’ lanterns, the best pumpkins for eating are the smaller ones (those less than four pounds) because the inner flesh is less fibrous. You will sometimes see “baking pumpkins” or “sugar pumpkins” in the supermarket, which do tend to be smaller and sweeter. Choose these whenever possible.
Cooking with Pumpkins
Pumpkins keep for a long time if kept in a cool place, and if the flesh is unblemished. Note: Since the outer flesh is so hard and durable (good for the pumpkin), it can be hard to get at the tender inner flesh (bad for Peter Peter).
To get chunks of pumpkin flesh for sautéing or for another purpose, it’s easiest to peel away the outer skin first, the same way you might remove the outer flesh of an orange. Cut off the top and bottom so that the pumpkin lies flat, then use a sharp knife to remove the outer flesh, curving along the outside from top to bottom. One you’ve removed all the skin, then you can cut it in half and remove the seeds and flesh.
If making pumpkin purée, you can simply cut the pumpkin open, remove the inner strings and seeds, and steam or bake the halves until the flesh is tender. Then you can scrape the flesh away and mash it or pass it through a ricer. It’s never advisable to boil pumpkin, as it absorbs too much water and gets mushy, and boiling leeches out the vitamins into the water (there’s nothing like orange water down the drain to ruin the pumpkin-esque goodness of a recipe).
Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas (recipe below), are incredibly popular as a snack in Mexico, where the pumpkin is native. They are a healthy snack for the kids, and are easy to make.
Pumpkin blossoms are also a tasty treat which can be enjoyed in many ways. (Be sure to peek inside to ensure no small insects are in there!) You may also wish to remove the stamen, which can sometimes be bitter. Pumpkin blossoms can be filled with goat cheese or ricotta, and cooked in a light tomato sauce, or lightly fried in oil.
We love pumpkin in both sweet and savory dishes given its smooth texture and hint of sweetness. We’ve used it in curry and bisque, and savored the crunch of pepitas. We couldn’t ignore the sweeter side, naturally, so there are also a few yummy desserts to savor (save some for holiday baking!).
Thai Red Curry Beef and Pumpkin
Roasted Pumpkin & Vegetable Medley with Creamy Polenta
Pumpkin Streusel Cake
Pumpkin Flan with Ancho Chile Brittle
Pepitas (Spicy Pumpkin Seeds)
This test kitchen dossier is from our September 2006 issue.