Every year the pumpkin parade arrives earlier - before Labor Day, even, the fluffy pumpkin lattes and baseball mitt-size pumpkin muffins emerge on cue from behind coffee bar counters. Limited-edition pumpkin ales follow, along with sweet-smelling doughnuts and seasonally confusing ice creams. And before long, chunky cans of purees are lining supermarket aisle-end displays, seductively promising smooth-as-silk pies.
Yet for all of our pumpkin fetishizing, we tend to take this humble cucurbit for granted, forgetting that it is also real food. With its versatility, subtle varietal differences and mutable texture, pumpkin can be so much more than a flavor of the month or doorstep decoration.
While the pumpkin takes its last victory lap of the year, this holiday season is a good time to explore some of the pumpkin's other applications.
"We're so used to thinking of the pumpkin as something for pie, but for many people - in the Caribbean, in Italy, in France - it's used for savory everyday foods," says Margo Durham, manager of Maple Acres Farms in Plymouth Meeting.
Indeed, elsewhere in the world, one of our greatest indigenous foodstuffs is an important dietary staple. In Italy, it shows up as filling for tortellini with crushed amaretto cookies or as creamy orange-hued risotto. Austria's fragrant pumpkin seed oil is drizzled over cheese and salads. In Turkey and the Middle East, chunks of pumpkin are served with syrup as a simple dessert, or the whole gourd is stuffed with meat, rice, and spices.
In Thailand, smaller pumpkins are filled with a sweet coconut custard and roasted, then sliced for a dramatic creamsicle-colored presentation. Pumpkin is often the basis for tagines or stews in North Africa, while sugary pumpkin fritters are a luxuriant sweet in South Africa; in Kenya, pumpkin is cooked into a spicy pudding with coconut milk.
If the goal is to bring pumpkin back to the Thanksgiving table, a natural place to start is with the people, who, like the pumpkin, are native to the Americas. The Mayan dish Sikil Pak alchemically transforms toasted and ground pumpkin seeds sparked with hot chile pepper, garlic and charred tomato into a creamy, rich dip.
American Indians used pumpkins not just as food but also as vessels for cooking and eating. In her new holiday book Nigella Christmas, food celebrity Nigella Lawson gives the stately gourd center stage as a meatless main dish. Stuffed with basmati rice jeweled with dried cranberries and drizzled with a gingered tomato sauce, it's a sweet and wholesome alternative for vegan eaters, and much more attractive to behold than a soy-based faux turkey could ever be.
The pumpkin-as-vessel approach can also be used for dessert as a refreshing change of pace from that slick-surfaced pie. Individual mini Jack-Be-Little pumpkins filled with pudding are cute and visually appealing; coconut milk and cardamom give them a twist reminiscent of desserts found throughout Asia and Africa.
A holiday tradition in Estonia, pickled pumpkin makes an unusual addition to the Thanksgiving feast. The pumpkin is cut into cubes that turn crisp and shimmery when boiled in a tangy brine spiced with cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, and ginger, yet the pickles still retain a bit of the pumpkin's velvety texture. Pickled pumpkin can complement turkey as a relish, or it can be served as an exotic sweet.
A note on usage: Though any pumpkin can be used for eating, the general rule of thumb is to choose smaller pumpkins for sweeter, less-stringy flesh. Cheese and sugar pumpkins and kabocha squash can be used interchangeably, and some cooks even use butternut squash as a substitute.
This time of year, Maple Acres sells cinderella, peanut and neck pumpkins (reputedly prized by the Amish for pie-making). Durham says her customers usually come in knowing what pumpkin they're looking for.
"People who cook with pumpkins tend to be special fans of certain kinds."
Makes about 6 half-pint jars or 12 servings
4 pounds peeled and diced pumpkin
5 cups sugar
5 cups distilled white vinegar
5 black peppercorns
4 allspice berries
4 cinnamon sticks
15 whole cloves
1-inch piece ginger, peeled and sliced thin
1. Place the pumpkin in a large, deep bowl. In a large saucepan, combine sugar, vinegar, peppercorns, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, cloves and ginger. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Pour hot liquid over pumpkin. Cover and set aside 8 hours or overnight.
2. Strain liquid into a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes. Strain, removing spices. Reserve. Transfer pumpkin back to saucepan and return to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes, or until pumpkin is translucent and crisp. Cool completely. Transfer to sterile jars, adding back a few cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns and allspice berries to each jar for decoration.
Makes 8 to 12 servings
1 7- to 8-pound pumpkin, such as White Lumina, or Jarrahdale
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or olive oil
3 cloves garlic, 2 minced plus 1 left whole
1 cup dried cranberries
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 good pinch of saffron strands
Zest of 1 clementine/satsuma
Approximately 2 cups basmati rice, uncooked
Approximately 4 cups hot vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Slice the lid off the top of the pumpkin, and remove the seeds and fibrous flesh from the inside, keeping the top to put back on later.
2. In a large saucepan with a lid, fry the onion gently in the oil until softened, then add the 2 minced garlic cloves, the cranberries, spices and clementine zest. Stir in the rice, turning until it becomes glossy in the pan. Pour in the broth and let the pan come to a boil, then clamp on the lid and turn the heat down to the lowest it will possibly go. Cook for 15 minutes.
3. Cut the remaining clove of garlic in half and rub the inside of the pumpkin with the cut side of each half, then, using your fingers, smear some salt over the flesh inside as well. The rice stuffing will be quite damp and not very fluffy at this stage, but check it for seasoning - adding more spice, salt or pepper if wanted - and then spoon it into the garlic- and salt-rubbed pumpkin cavity and tamp down well.
4. Press the pumpkin lid back on top and squeeze it down as firmly as you can (it will sit a bit above the top). Stand the pumpkin on a double layer of aluminum foil, wrapping the foil 2 inches around the sides and scrunching it there, to keep the pumpkin out of direct contact with the water later. Place the stuffed, partially wrapped pumpkin in a roasting pan and pour in freshly boiled water to a depth of 1 inch. Cook the pumpkin for about 2 hours, by which time it should be tender when pierced.
5. Meanwhile, get on with the Gingery Tomato Sauce (at right). Take the pumpkin out of the roasting pan and let it sit for about 10 minutes before you slice it into segments like a cake.
Per serving (based on 12): 229 calories, 5 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams sugar, 1 gram fat, no cholesterol, 317 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 8 to 12 servings
1 onion, peeled and halved
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1-inch length fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups organic tomato sauce
2 cups water
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Put the onion, garlic, dried ginger, and fresh ginger into a processor and blitz to a pulp.
2. Heat the butter and oil in a deep, wide skillet, then add the onion-garlic mixture. Cook over a low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally so that it doesn't burn. Add the tomato sauce and water to the pan, and season with the sugar, salt and pepper. Cook for 15 minutes, at a gentle simmer, then taste for seasoning before decanting into a warmed jug or gravy boat and taking to the table for people to pour over their slices of stuffed pumpkin.
Per serving (based on 12): 43 calories, 1 gram protein, 6 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 2 grams fat, 3 milligrams cholesterol, 371 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
For the pumpkin shells:
6 small pumpkins (about 8 ounces each)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
For the pudding:
4 pounds sugar, pie or cheese pumpkin, seeded, de-pulped, peeled and cut into chunks (or use a 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree to save time)
2 cups sugar
1 can coconut milk
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 cup arrowroot powder
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 cup shredded coconut, toasted
1. To prepare the shells, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice the tops off the small pumpkins. Scoop out the pulp and seeds, scraping the inside of the shells clean with a spoon, and discard the pumpkin innards. In a small bowl, combine sugar and cardamom and rub this mixture generously over the inside surface of the pumpkins. Set the tops back on the pumpkins and place them on a baking sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the interior flesh can be easily pierced with a fork.
2. To prepare the pudding, steam the pumpkin chunks until very tender, about 30 minutes. Add cooked pumpkin to the work bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. (Optional: For an extra-smooth pudding, run the pumpkin puree through a food mill, then return it to the food processor.) Add sugar, coconut milk, cream, cardamom and arrowroot, and process again until smooth. Return mixture to a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture thickens, about 20-30 minutes. Transfer mixture to a container and chill in the refrigerator until set, about 3 hours.
3. To serve, fill mini pumpkins with pudding. Combine heavy cream, sugar and ginger in a bowl and use a mixer to whip into soft peaks. Set a small dollop of whipped cream on each pumpkin, then sprinkle with toasted coconut. Serve with the pumpkin tops on the side.
Per serving: 712 calories, 8 grams protein, 92 grams carbohydrates, 68 grams sugar, 47 grams fat, 111 milligrams cholesterol, 48 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.