There's a lot more to pumpkins than just pie filling

October 13, 1991|By Steven Raichlen

To cherish pumpkin only as a pie filling, as Americans chiefly do, is to miss most of its culinary grandeur.

In other parts of the world, pumpkins are simmered in soups, stewed with meats, tucked into dumplings, and even served on pasta. Even our ancestors were smarter. One hundred years ago, you could have even enjoyed pumpkin butter, pumpkin pickles, pumpkin French fries and even pumpkin beer in this country.

Pumpkins range in size from the diminutive "Jack Be Little," which is excellent for stuffing, to the enormous "Big Max," which can weigh up to 600 pounds. The medium-size pumpkins -- 6 to 8 inches across -- are the best ones for eating. Popular varieties include the Sweet Sugar, Winter Luxury, Connecticut Field and Big Cheese. Leave the monsters for youthful sculptors to carve into jack-o'-lanterns.

When selecting pumpkins for cooking, choose plump, unblemished specimens that feel heavy for their size.

Another test is to rap on the side of the pumpkin with your knuckles. It should respond with a dull thud. A hollow sound indicates a squash that is old and dried up.

Pumpkin keeps well, which endeared it to the colonists in the age before refrigeration. Store it in a cool, dry spot, like an attic or basement, but don't let the pumpkin freeze, or it will become watery.

There is little waste in pumpkin. The seeds can be washed, dried and roasted for nutritious munching. The flesh is well suited to a variety of savory dishes and desserts. A hollowed pumpkin shell can be used as a tureen for serving soup. Hollowed baby pumpkins can be stuffed with grain, nuts, cheese and ground meats to be served as an offbeat entree.

To ready a pumpkin for stuffing or for use as a tureen, cut out the top as you would to make a jack-o'-lantern. Use an ice cream scoop to remove the strings and seeds. (Be sure to save the latter for roasting.)

To make pumpkin puree, cut the pumpkin in half and scrape out the fibers and seeds. Place the halves, cut side down, on a greased baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until the flesh is tender. Scoop the pulp out of the shell and puree in a food processor or vegetable mill, or through a sieve. Alternatively, the pumpkin can be peeled, cut into pieces and steamed. A 5-pound pumpkin makes about five cups of puree. (Store the extra in the freezer.) Homemade puree is drier than canned pumpkin.

Pumpkin seeds make a tasty and nutritious snack. (In Mexico they are used for thickening sauces.) There's no easy way of separating the seeds from the pulp. Wash them in several changes of water, then sort through them one by one. To roast pumpkin seeds, toss them with a little oil, salt and pepper and bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until crisp. (Turn the seeds from time to time to prevent the bottoms from burning.) Another method for roasting pumpkin seeds is offered below.

When most people think of flavorings for pumpkin, they reach for cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, brown sugar and maple syrup. True, pumpkin shines in the presence of these flavorings. But it also has a natural affinity with onion, garlic, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce and even sausage and pork.

Pumpkin seeds are rich in protein, unsaturated vegetable oil (a ,, good source of vitamin E), the B vitamins and iron. The orange flesh contains carotenoids that the body converts to vitamin A. A 3.5-ounce serving of pureed pumpkin can contain as much as 20,000 units of vitamin A -- over 400 percent of the required daily allowance.

Below are some savory uses for the versatile pumpkin. It's a long way from pumpkin pie!

Pumpkin soup

Serves six to eight.

Each fall in 19th century Paris, vendors at Les Halles (the great market) would celebrate La Fete du Poitron, King Pumpkin Day. The largest pumpkin at the market was decorated with a paper crown and a train of tinsel and carried through market for all to pay homage to. King Pumpkin was then sectioned and sold to housewives for soup.

1 hard, tallish, unblemished pumpkin weighing 6 to 8 pounds (this will serve as the tureen)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 leeks, trimmed, washed and finely chopped

2 ribs celery, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and finely chopped

1 parsnip, peeled and finely chopped

3 tablespoons butter

2 cups pumpkin puree

5 cups chicken stock

1/2 cup Madeira

bouquet garni of bay leaf, thyme and parsley

1 cup heavy cream

salt and fresh pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives or scallions

Cut a lid off the pumpkin, as for a jack-o'-lantern. Remove all seeds and fibrous material, scraping the inside clean. (Do not scrape too deeply or the pumpkin may spring a leak.)

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