Pondering the place of the great pumpkin in autumn foods

HAPPY EATER

November 11, 1992|By ROB KASPER

I ate pumpkins, but wasn't sure why. I was an unexamined pumpkin eater, at least until the other day when I looked deeply into my feelings about the gourd.

The flavor of a pumpkin was not that compelling. At best it was subtle. At worst it was watery. Rather than take the lead in the flavor parade, like chocolate or garlic, pumpkin seemed content to be a consensus player, working in the background to support and carry other flavors.

Flipping through a handful of cookbooks, I found that a fair number of cooks had some of the same vague views of pumpkins I did.

First of all, they weren't sure whether it was a fruit or a vegetable. It seems to be both, depending on the mood of the cook. The best definition I found, and the one that seems to be correct, is that a pumpkin is a gourd, that looks like a fruit but behaves like a vegetable. Or maybe it was the other way around.

The cookbook authors seem to regard the pumpkin as a nice dish. Something that deserved a place on the autumnal table, especially on Thanksgiving. But it was a sidelight, not a star that deserved special treatment. Take, for example, the question of taking the trouble to make your pumpkin pie out of fresh, rather than canned, pumpkin puree.

Some cooks said the only pumpkin worth pureeing, was the so-called sugar, or "neck" pumpkin, the ones with long necks. These twisted pumpkins were uglier than the classic round jack-o-lantern pumpkins. But in pumpkins, as in life, it turned out the gawky ones ended up being sweeter than the slick-lookers.

Not everyone thought that fresh pumpkin puree was all that important in a pie. Susan Herrmann Louis author of the "Farm House Cookbook" (Workman) said it was OK to use plain old jack-o-lantern pumpkins, or oven canned pumpkins in the Amish country pumpkin custard pie she put in her book.

And Lora Broody, in her basic cookbook "Kitchen Survival Guide" (Morrow), said that trying to make pie with jack-o-lantern puree was a mistake. She recommended canned pumpkin pie filling.

Even unabashed pumpkin lovers, like Crescent Dragonwagon, whose "Dairy Hollow House Soup and Breads" (Workman) cookbook was full of recipes for the gourd, had reservations about using fresh sugar pumpkins to make a pie filling.

Anyone who went to the trouble of coring, seeding, steaming and peeling a sugar pumpkin to make a pie filling was better off using butternut squash, she said. Butternut squash has more meat, fewer seeds and more sugar than even the sweetest pumpkins.

As for the jack-o-lantern type pumpkin, Ms. Dragonwagon found a way to get it to the table. She made a soup tureen out of it. She cut off the lid, scraped out the seeds and fiber, then heated the insides by filling it with boiling water. Then poured out the water, filled the pumpkin with hot soup, and carried it to the table.

In trying to feel positive about pumpkins, I considered pumpkin bread. I have eaten some good pumpkin bread. But the pumpkin in them seemed to play the same role as zucchini in the infamous zucchini bread. Namely, it gave the bread some moisture, and got rid of lots of leftover garden produce.

I am told when roasted, pumpkins seeds will be eaten by some children. That has not been my experience. The seeds from our Halloween pumpkin were roasted, then sat uneaten. To my kids, a contest between a roasted seed fresh from a pumpkin and a Tootsie Roll fresh from the trick or treat stash is no contest at all.

I am not totally turned off by pumpkins. Appetizers interest me. Afghan appetizers of baby pumpkin served with a garlic yogurt sauce at the Helmand restaurant is wonderful. And a colleague described a Cuban treatment of pumpkin, simmering it in water then frying it in olive oil and garlic, that sounded intriguing.

And tradition. Thanksgiving wouldn't taste like Thanksgiving without a late-night piece of pumpkin pie. Maybe two.

Indeed what brought me back home to the gourd after my mental wanderings was a description of a perfect pumpkin pie. It came from Janeen Aletta Sarlin, who grew up with her grandmother on a 160-acre farm in southern Minnesota, and is author of "Food From An American Farm (Simon & Schuster).

It was her grandmother's firm belief, Ms. Sarlin wrote, that an ideal pumpkin pie should be so easy to eat, so creamy, so light that an eater would be able to have a second piece in peace.

So despite pumpkin's shy flavor, in the end I found it hard to turn away from a dish that invites you back for refills.

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