The Magic of Fall
It’s back! My favorite time of the year…FALL! The air is crisp, all the children are back in school with their freshly pressed new school clothes, football has started, Indian summer (hopefully) is giving us the last glimpse of summer and days are growing shorter. All signs that the holidays are creeping upon us and that they are just around the corner. The first indication, of course, is all the Halloween candy magically appearing in stores, which of course brings to mind all those orange-colored favorites (and those that are not orange as well): pumpkins! Pumpkins did not even become associated with Halloween until the mid-19th century. The cultivation has been traced as far back as 8,000 B.C. to Mesoamerica where they were grown for their seeds not their flesh. American Indians taught the pilgrims how to cultivate them and the seeds eventually made their way across the oceans to the every corner of the globe, except Antarctica. We all know we can use them for a quick centerpiece, but how many centerpieces do you know of that you can actually eat? I am not just talking about making a pumpkin pie, but how to use them with savory cooking as well.
Pumpkins are a winter squash, as are butternut, acorn, kabocha and (a favorite of mine) spaghetti squash. They are more mature than summer squashes: zucchini, patty-pan (summer squash), and yellow neck, which is why they have a softer skin than the winter squash’s tougher, outer layer. When selecting your squash or pumpkin ensure the rind is intact without much discoloration. The more the squash/pumpkin weighs, the larger amount of edible flesh there is as well. Squash/pumpkins will keep for up to about three months if stored in a cool place and out of direct sunlight. Prepping squash/pumpkin is also very easy because the skin is so tough you can simply cut it into wedges, scoop out the seeds & membrane, and then roast. Butternut squash, which has a little thinner skin, is one of the few squashes you can peel with a vegetable peeler. Just remove the seeds and roast and it is delicious, especially if you roast some Brussels sprouts along with it and add a little sage-brown butter (yum). Winter squash comes in a variety of shapes, colors and textures. Its flesh is an antioxidant powerhouse with beta-carotene and vitamin C, which may help prevent heart disease, and it also contains plenty of fiber. The seeds of any variety of winter squash can be roasted and they provide protein, iron and heart healthy fat.
There are many varieties of pumpkins and not all are orange. There is a large palette of colors for the Cucurbita, the genus of pumpkins, squashes and some gourds. It has a range of colors from every variation of orange, coral, inky black, sage-green and white.
The most typical are the small Sugar Pie pumpkins, which are the ones used for … pumpkin pies! These pumpkins are not the ones you would buy for making jack-o-lanterns. Sugar pumpkins are smaller, sweeter and less fibrous. So, if you are buying one to make a pie make sure it’s firm, orange, and heavy for its size, with a stem at least an inch long. If the stem is any shorter the fruit may quickly decay. Also, make sure there are no cracks or soft spots on the skin. There are Lumina, identifiable by their eerie white exterior, which are normally used as ornamental, but also edible. Blue Hubbard is big and warty. A Cinderella pumpkin is an heirloom varietal from France whose true name is Rouge vif D’Etampes, which, from its shape and coloring, you can easily tell how it received its nickname. The Cinderella is also edible and it is quite tasty in pies. There is also a mini version of the Cinderella named Mini Fairytale. It is less than three pounds and smooth. It also can be eaten, or you can hollow it out and use it as a personal serving bowl. There is the La Estrella, which is a hybrid from Florida, and has a subtle orange skin, which is splashed with soft greens and tans. The flesh is good for soups, purees and/or by simply slicing and roasting it. The Green Goblin is an heirloom from Chioggia, Italy, which is also called a sea pumpkin or “Marina di Chioggia.” It is very knobby and has a pale, almost white, blue/green skin. You can eat it just by just cutting it into wedges, drizzling it with olive oil, seasoning it with some salt & herbs and roasting it until tender.
So, when you find yourself at your local farmers market or, even better, a pumpkin patch, make sure you experiment not only with carving a pumpkin for the holiday’s, but picking up some of the different varieties to roast or to make a tasty soup. I know you will not be disappointed.
Chef K. Marie Paulk