Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ode to the Pumpkin

The month of October brings forth the annual pilgrimages by all to the nearest pumpkin patch.  On Long Island, the entire eastern north fork is devoted to the quest, evidenced by the clogging traffic congestion on roads whose designers never anticipated such volume.  The surrounding wineries, farm stands and restaurants have all capitalized on the pumpkin picking weekends as they offer fall festivals which become more and more spectacular each season.  We all visit the various farms that beckon to come and pick their pumpkins - pay us to complete our harvest so we don't have to!  It's all in fun, after all what would a front porch on Halloween be without the jack-o-lantern sentries to welcome our guests?  Uncarved pumpkins of varying size and color strategically arranged with colorful mums make for a warming entrance into our homes throughout November as well.

The pumpkin is a member of the gourd family, as are other squash and, yes, the watermelon.  Pumpkins have been a crop of North America dating back to the native Indians.  Embraced by the settlers who colonized America, it quickly earned its rightful place on the Thanksgiving table as pumpkin pie, this presentation retaining the starring role in Thanksgiving tradition ever since.

This year the white pumpkin is all the rage in sophisticated fall decor since they graced the covers of home magazines.  The humble round orange pumpkin has evolved indeed to a variety of sizes, shapes and colors.  I saw white ones, I saw hunter green ones, I saw buff shades and sagey grey-green hues.  There was even a plum-purple variety on display.  With all of the choices that abound, the best laid seasonal display for your home is a carefully chosen selection of several different specimens; and then the orange guys are destined to be carved into grinning and grimacing faces to adorn the steps and porch railings that surround our front doors.

What about the ones that don't make the cut for the role of Jack?  There are pumpkin recipes galore from September through November.  We can't run away from the pumpkins that surround us.  Their flavors, enhanced with autumn spices, appear to us wherever we turn, from pumpkin spiced latte at the coffee house and pumpkin doughnuts at every bakery to pumpkin-filled ravioli in the Italian markets and pumpkin bisques in the restaurants' stock pots.   Most recipes call for using canned pumpkin; Libby's is one brand, simply pureed pumpkin without added seasonings, it is perfectly acceptable for any recipe whether sweet or savory.  However, if you have an overabundance of pumpkins that your overzealous excitement loaded into the wagon out on that  pumpkin picking expedition, why not use them up?  They do make a perfect seasonal decoration through the Thanksgiving Day feast, but we all know darned well that the day after the feast, you'll be joyously evicting those pumpkins in lieu of reindeer and snowmen.

The process should be simple enough, much like baking an acorn squash.  Take the pumpkin and halve it.  Scoop out all of the seeds - by the way, a melon baller works wonders for that task.  Lightly rub the cut side with melted butter and place, cut side down, in a roasting pan.  If the pumpkin is large, you may need to use two roasting pans and you may need to cut it into quarters or even eighths.   Generally the smaller the pumpkin, the more tender it will be.  Place in a 425-degree oven for about an hour.  Remove from the oven, flip over the pieces so that the cut sides are face-up, a spoon should easily go deep into the flesh with no resistance, otherwise return to the oven and keep checking every fifteen minutes.  Once cooked, allow to cool completely, then scoop out the flesh.  Place the flesh into a very fine-meshed sieve, place the sieve over a large bowl and allow to drain for a couple of hours.  You don't want that added liquid that seeps out to end up ruining your recipe.  Next toss the pumpkin into the food processor and puree it, then deposit it into some tupperware and you're ready to cook!  My husband Brian is already being enlisted for a repeat performance of a pumpkin bisque he made a few years ago; it was creamy, velvety bliss.

If you reserve the seeds from the pumpkin, they can be husked and toasted.  These nutty-flavored toasted pumpkin seeds, called pepitas, are healthy snacks and also often used to top soups, salads and some Mexican dishes.

Here is the recipe for my grandmother's pumpkin bread, which she passed down to me when I was engaged to be married; it has become an annual fall tradition ever since.

Pumpkin Bread
2 ½ cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
1 15-ounce can pumpkin
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Grease and flour two loaf pans.  Mix all ingredients.  Divide batter between two pans.  Bake for 1¼  hours.  Cool before removing from pans; do not cut until completely cooled.  Makes 2 loaves.

Alternative: for my fellow chocolate lovers out there, substitute 1 cup of chocolate chips for the raisins.  I came up with this idea and acted on it one year, to the delight of my chocolate-loving husband.  Grandma loved chocolate as well, so I do not think she would disapprove!

No comments:

Post a Comment