The Great Pumpkin

There's much more to the orange squash than pie fillings. It can be the power ingredient in everything from ravioli to flan.

Focus On Food

October 21, 2001|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun Staff

For pottage and puddings and custard and pies,

Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.

We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon;

If 'twere not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

-- Pilgrim verse, 1630

We're all familiar with pumpkins as pies, jack-o'-lanterns, pet names and even Cinderella coaches, but for dinner?

"When we think of pumpkins in this country, we think of three different things: pies, carving and those giant pumpkin contests you have this time of year," says Michael Krondl, author of The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook (Celestial Arts; $5.95). "But you can do all kinds of things with pumpkins."

You can use them to stuff ravioli, make gnocchi, risotto and mousse. They're good in ice cream, soup and muffins, and as honey-laced side dishes. Their seeds make rich oil or a crunchy baked snack, and their shells, decorative containers for flower arrangements, individual cheesecakes (the tiny ones) or stuffing.

You can even pickle them. Chef Rich Stuthmann, director of culinary arts at Baltimore International College, says his mother used to do just that.

"When I was a child, she used to cure it in a brine," he says. "The flesh is nice and firm and a good alternative to a pickle. ... But when you add spices to it, pumpkin becomes a wonderful medium to cook. Its consistency allows it to absorb flavors well."

And pumpkins are good for you, too: They're loaded with beta carotene and have only 49 calories per cooked cup.

But first, there are a few things you should know, starting with what a pumpkin is.

"It's a kind of winter squash," explains Krondl, and there are dozens of varieties. But we're most familiar with those big ones we see everywhere right now used for Halloween carving and the much smaller versions used for pies, usually called sugar pumpkins. For cooking purposes, it's much better to go for the smaller sugar pumpkins or another kind called a cheese pumpkin, which runs about 6 to 8 pounds and is the color of butternut squash.

"The ones used for jack-o'-lanterns are useless for cooking," says Krondl. "People try to cook with those things, and they have a total disaster on their hands." The flesh is often thin and stringy, and the taste fairly bitter and bland.

Look for unblemished, firm and ripe pumpkins. They're usually available at farmers' markets, but stay away from those at the currently ubiquitous roadside stands, which specialize in the carving kind. (For a list of area farmers markets, many of which run through December, go to the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Web site: www.mda.state.md.us.)

There's always the good old canned-pumpkin standby as well, though fresh is always best.

But for recipes that call for pureed pumpkin, like muffins and pies, canned is fine.

"Pumpkins are cute, they're fun, they're one of those things that makes fall a joy," Krondl says. "In a nutshell, they're the flavor of fall."

GETTING MORE OUT OF YOUR PUMPKIN

Pumped up about pumpkins? Check out these tips for working with the orange orbs:

When shopping for eating pumpkins, stay away from the jack-o'-lantern variety if you can help it. Smaller pumpkins, the sugar or cheese types, have meatier flesh and a better taste. And keep in mind that pumpkins won't ripen off the vine, Krondl says, so if it's green now, it will stay that way.

Try using an old-fashioned metal ice cream scoop to scrape out the insides; it makes the work easier.

If you buy now but want to use later, store your pumpkin in a cool dark place (the refrigerator's fine). It should keep, uncut, for several months

Don't fret if you can't find the perfect pumpkin; you can always use the canned kind as long as your recipe doesn't call for cubes or chunks.

For pumpkin recipes on the Web, try www.pumpkinnook.com, a clearinghouse for all things pumpkin, and www.urbanext .uiuc.edu / pumpkins, a University of Illinois-run site.

PUMPKIN, LEEK AND POTATO SOUP

Serves 8

4 whole cloves

10 black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

4 sprigs fresh thyme

4 sprigs fresh parsley

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, minced

3 leeks, white and light-green parts only, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

1 1/2 pounds sugar pumpkin, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut into 1-inch chunks

4 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

2 cups half-and-half

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

pinch of cayenne

freshly ground pepper

1 / 4 cup minced fresh parsley

PUMPKIN AND PANCETTA RISOTTO

Serves 4 as a first course or 2 as a main dish

1/3 cup chopped pancetta

2-2 1/2 cups chicken stock

2 large shallots, chopped

4 cups pumpkin flesh, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes (about 1 pound)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup risotto rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons mascarpone

1 / 4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

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