To become a pumpkin expert, you first have to eat pumpkins. This old Native American mainstay crop spread all over the world after the Europeans realized America was here. Just like potatoes and corn, it became a common food in every climate where it survives. Today the culinary pumpkin has fallen out of favor in America and neither the average consumer nor the foodie experts know much about it. This year I decided to be different. I bought a total of 18 pumpkins of 8 different varieties and since October (it’s now the week before Christmas) I’ve eaten all but six. I’ve kept them long enough to test whether particular varieties improve with age, and I’ve preserved pumpkin meat of different types by freezing and by drying, just to see what the differences are between that and freshly cooked pumpkin. I’ve eaten pumpkins grown especially for the dinner table, and pumpkins grown for Halloween decorations, and I’ve saved and cleaned and eaten the seeds. The experiment continues, but I think that after this much direct experience plus all the research I’ve done and my past history with pumpkins, I know what I’m talking about. It’s a pretty good bet that I’ve eaten more pumpkins and more types of pumpkins than you or anyone you know.
The thing that caused me to do this was a short cooking segment I watched last year on one of the network TV news shows. A nationally known chef demonstrated how to make a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. The first thing he did was open a can of pumpkin, as he explained that canned pumpkin really isn’t pumpkin at all, it’s Hubbard squash. His co-host was surprised by this and asked why he didn’t use fresh pumpkin. He got all upset and said it’s just too much work and there’s no difference, it would take forever to peel, canned pumpkin is fine.
All of this is wrong although some of what he said is true. Sadly, canned pumpkin isn’t pumpkin. It really is Hubbard squash and most people who make pumpkin pies use it without knowing this. The usual pumpkin pie tastes like the eggs and sugar and spices in the pie, and the pumpkin part is just filler. I’ve never liked pumpkin pie, although when I was a kid I would accept a piece so I could use it as a platform for whipping cream or melted marshmallows. I left most of the pie on the plate, and never have developed a taste for it. Even as a kid, though, I knew how to butcher a pumpkin. Mom would always buy two and they usually cost ten cents a pound so it was cheap enough to turn one into a jack-o-lantern and save one for pies.
To butcher a pumpkin, pierce the top carefully and repeatedly to cut a cap out of the top that includes the stem. Make the hole big enough to stick your hand inside, and reach in to scoop out the seeds and the pulpy mess attached to them. Then cut the pumpkin in half, and then in quarters, and then cut the quarters in half and keep doing that until you have wedges or slices about two inches wide and three or four inches long. Set a slice on its side on a cutting board and with a santoku or chef’s knife, slice the rind off, making two or three cuts straight down. There’s no peeling involved. It takes some time but you get a lot of yield from a pumpkin. You can cook some down for pie filling, or you can slice some and dry it for soups and stews, like people did in the old days.
To bake a pumpkin you don’t even need to cut it up. Cut the top off and put the pumpkin and its cap (if room allows) on a pizza pan in the oven. It’s best to use a pizza pan with a rim, because towards the last the pumpkin might drip some juice. Cook at 350 degrees F for two to two and a half hours. Use a wooden spoon to test the pumpkin after two hours of baking. If the flesh still has uncooked areas, give it more time. The cap will cook faster, so you can pull that out towards the end and sample the pumpkin. Individual fruits vary a lot in sweetness and flavor even within varieties. If you use the baked pumpkin in a pie filling, you might want to cut back on the sugar if it’s a really sweet one. Baking is the easiest way to process a pumpkin, and you simply scoop the meat out afterwards to season and eat fresh, or to use in other recipes.
Halloween pumpkins aren’t grown for the table any more. Hardly anyone makes pumpkin pie from scratch now, and farmers pick their pumpkin crops a little too early for best storage or best flavor because pumpkins that aren’t quite ripe have a more striking orange color. If you want to try one of these in pies, look through the stacks and the bins for one that is dark brown and lonely. That’s a good one. The bright orange pumpkins will taste a little green.
There’s so much to know about pumpkins that it’s easy to understand why it isn’t a big commercial crop any more. If you want to try the many heirloom varieties or unusual hybrids available, you’ll probably need to plant them in your own garden. That’s a risky undertaking in many places, especially if you’re cramped for space. Squash and pumpkin succumb quickly to powdery mildew, a fungal infection that begins as soon as the hot humid weather of midsummer hits. Pumpkins require a long growing season, and the fruits should stay on the vines even beyond the first light frost. Ventilation helps control the mildew, but this will always be a difficult crop for any organic gardener who tries to pack as much into every square foot as possible. Even regular fungicide applications might not be enough. Luxuriant squash leaves and stems attract many insect predators and many other plant diseases. Good pumpkin fruits depend on the nourishment of healthy plants throughout the growing season.
It’s no wonder then, that the quality of both pumpkins and winter squash is unpredictable. At your local market or grocery you could pay high prices for either fruit and get produce that’s unripe and tasteless. On occasion you might get lucky, and buy one that is sweet as a chestnut, as advertised, but that’s not common. If shopping for pumpkins and winter squash, look for fruits with dark-skinned rinds that are so hard you can’t dent them with a fingernail. Acorn squash are a little different and won’t keep nearly so long in storage. They’ll never be tough enough to withstand the fingernail test so don’t try it. Instead, look at the pale spot on the underside of the fruit. If it’s white, don’t buy it. If it’s ruddy yellow, that might be a good one. Some squash and some pumpkins improve with storage, but the curing period recommended by the experts in the Extension Service only extends the storage time. Increased sweetness in storage is due to the variety. Hubbard and Sweet Dumpling squash get sweeter with age. Some heirloom pumpkins do this also, but it’s tough to find out which ones unless you know someone who grows them. I’ve experimented enough to have a few good prospects, and that will be part of my next article.
This year my best source of pumpkins was not the local farmer’s market. I got my pumpkins at Walmart. Frey Farms markets a very good selection of heirloom pumpkins and choice hybrids through Walmart, and Walmart does them very poor service. Probably most people think they are ornamental gourds and just walk past. Somebody needs to hand out samples like they do for pizza and sausage.