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Posts Tagged ‘Pumpkin’

Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

As a child I grew up eating frozen, pureed, orange squash that came in a box and tasted vaguely of plastic.  Served in a gelatinous slump on my plate, I spent years believing that squash was one food best left in the fields.

But then my father started a garden, a large plot my mother, sister and I tended together.  This is when we discovered acorn squash, which my mother baked with a bit of maple syrup and cream drizzled into the hollow left from the seeds.  One bite of the savory treat, and I was in love. 

The sweet, flaky goodness of winter squash is a hallmark of fall for me, and each year I wait until the time that squash is in season to indulge in its delight.  I wouldn’t dream of buying and eating it out of season, because to me, the passion for food stems from anticipation as much as preparation.

If you’re looking to warm your evenings with savory soup or want a side dish with a little pizzazz, check out the ingredient that makes fall meals special:  winter squash.

Rich, flakey, light, or nutty, these colorful cousins of the thin-skinned zucchini come in a variety of shapes and sizes perfect for feeding a couple or a crowd.  As the days get chilly and shorter, squirrel a few into your pantry to store for winter dishes. 

Delicatas, hubbards, buttercups, and acorn squash all grow well here, along with pie pumpkins and a few of the butternuts.  I like them cut in half and roasted, but use them in other recipes and you’ll realize they’re pretty good cooked many ways.

Spaghetti squash is perfect for those who love pasta, with long, stringy, mild tasting fibers.  Slathered with sauce or outstanding in pesto, the vines are so prolific you only need plant a few.  Cooking it is simple – pop it in the microwave until it’s soft and collapses, then carefully cut it open, remove the seeds and scrape out the squash.

There is one note of caution to cooking spaghetti squash this way:  pierce it thoroughly with a knife before microwaving.  It explodes if you don’t, blowing the microwave door open and spewing squash across the room.  Trust me, that’s not as much fun as it sounds.

 Hubbards always draw my attention.  I’ve always wanted to taste them, but their mammoth size – up to 25 pounds – make them look more like a drilling project than a simple meal.  When I finally got the nerve up to ask an old timer how he cracked the gargantuan gourd open, he smiled and said “the wife tosses it off the garage roof.”

Images of that kind, petite lady climbing a rickety ladder with what amounts to a small hippo in tow flashed through my mind, and I prepared to give that gardener a good tongue lashing on safety in cooking.  But one glance at his laughing eyes had me realizing I was being ribbed, and she didn’t really do that.

But the question persists:  how do you open hubbard?  With an extra tough skin and roly-poly shape, a knife is out of the question.  Fortunately Alton Brown, host of Good Eats, has the best approach:  tapping a cleaver through the squash with a wooden mallet.  This works well on all winter squash.

Smaller, thick-skinned pumpkins are ideal for using in pies or baked goods. Often called sugar pumpkins, they have a very rich, sweet flavor.  Use them immediately – while other winter squashes taste better as they age, the pie pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) loses its flavor if stored.

Before choosing pumpkins to grow in your patch, try a few this fall:  Black Futsu, a type from Japan, is a funky-looking flattened, warty, deep green pumpkin.  Its looks are deceiving; the flesh is golden with the savory taste of hazelnuts.  And Jahrradale, an Australian grey pumpkin, is very tasty.  The nutty, sweet but not strong flesh is easy to clean and nearly stringless, making baking a snap.

Harvest your winter squash when the skin toughens and isn’t dented by pressure from a fingernail.  But before this happens the skin is tender, so avoid wounding your fruit with a clumsy nail slash by watching for other signs of maturity, such as the stem drying out or the rind turning a deep color (some exceptions apply).

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Pumpkins in throwdown, clockwise from top: Snow White, Mystique, Baby Pam, Winter Luxury, New England Pie, and Kabocha, center.

The last time I stepped into the Boulder Daily Camera, I carried in a container of fish fertilizer that ended up exploding in a miasmic stench over the newsroom floor.  The smell was overwhelming, not leaving even after mopping up, and I was pretty sure it would take a lot to make myself welcome within those walls again.

So this time, I brought pie. 

Not just any pie, but seven types of pumpkin pies, baked from different pumpkin varieties grown by local farmers.  In bringing the treats, I wasn’t just trying to win back the newspaper’s affection; my ulterior motive was to find out which pumpkin tastes the best in the custardy dessert. 

When asked by gardeners which vegetable varieties are the best to grow, I hedge my answers.  It’s not that I don’t have favorites; it’s just that flavor is subjective.  My taste buds are different from theirs.  So I usually stick to suggesting that gardeners shop the farmer’s markets, to taste fruit and vegetables until they find the ones they like.

But with so many varieties of pumpkins to choose from, how can a gardener tell if this pie is better made from one pumpkin or another?  The only way to find out was to have a pumpkin throw down.

Pitching the idea to my editor, Cindy Sutter, was easy:  she’s a food writer and curious about all things edible.  Together, we hatched a plan to gather up six different pumpkins – all touted as delicious pie types – and, using the same recipe for each, make pies for a panel made up of restaurateurs and average Joes to sample.

Local growers were eager to help, since they want to know what is best to grow for their customers.  So in mid-October I set off to pick up a few pumpkins to try.  But what started as a simple seven-squash journey turned into a Volvo full of gourds; the farmers so kind and helpful that they pressed more than one type of pumpkin into the running.  I had to unload the car under cover of darkness so my spouse couldn’t see just how full that car was with pumpkins.

Cindy and I narrowed down the field to six: 

New England Pie – came up often in searches for the definitive pie types, along with Baby Pam, listed below.  Small to medium sized, deep orange color, and perfect roundness makes it a quintessential fall squash; its flavor has long been listed as the choice for pie makers.

Baby Pam Sugar Pie – one of the Sugar Pie pumpkin clan, Baby Pam is touted as a top choice for baking.  Widely grown for market, this medium sized (four pounds) squash is strongly recommended for commercial growers due to its vigor, yield, and medium-sized fruit.

Winter Luxury – an heirloom pumpkin with delicious, smooth flesh and old fashioned flavor.  The orange skin is netted with white, giving the gourd a frosted look.  This was my entry into the taste-off; as a gardener I’m a bit disappointed in the yield of the plant.  From six vines only four pumpkins were produced, which is unacceptable if you only have a small space to grow food.   

Mystique – a small pie pumpkin with medium orange color.  According to the farmer, yields are fairly good with this type, making it attractive for market growers.  The small size – two to three pounds – makes it a perfect one-pie pumpkin.

Kabocha – a Japanese pumpkin with dark green, striped skin was tossed into the mix.  Considered one of the sweetest of the Japanese winter squashes, Kabocha offered an element of the exotic to our pie entries.

Snow White – mammoth in comparison to the smaller pie types, this white-skinned heirloom surprised me.  Cutting open the 10-pounder, the skin was deep red-orange – I had been expecting a lightly colored flesh.  Though yields are average for a pumpkin of this size (one or two per vine), you’ll get enough squash to freeze and use in baking for the rest of the winter.

As the control, Libby’s canned pumpkin was added, on the thought that it was what most people think of as pumpkin for pie.

And the winner is……?  Read the results of the throwdown in Cindy’s article in the Boulder Daily Camera.

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Early in the summer, I dreamed big.  The weather was warming and the spring garden abundant, so when the small package of Pumpkin Pro arrived in the mail, I gave in to my inner child and sprinkled the powder into my pumpkin hills.  Touted as “the secret ingredient to growing gigantic pumpkins,” I let myself believe that this year I’d finally get a gourd the size of a Buick in my backyard.

The trio of bio-products (mycorrhyzal fungi, Azos bacterium, and calcium carbonate), promised a pumpkin that needed a little elbow room, so I planted only seeds with the genetics of giants in that area, then waited.  Nothing happened.  After 10 days, I planted again.   

Over in the regular garden, the miniature pumpkins sprang up with gusto, running over the ground and fruiting like they were trying to set a record.   In the giant pumpkin patch, a small, weak vine struggled up, growing feebly throughout the summer.  I nurtured it, putting up wind breaks and fertilizing it with care. 

The vine set fruit and I quickly caged it to protect it from squirrels.  Checking it daily, I was happy to see the swell of what would surely become a prize-winning Jack O’ Lantern.  Visions of carving the expanse of squash filled my mind: do I stay traditional with a simple Jack face or sculpt it to illustrate Dante’s Inferno

As summer rolled by it was clear no further pumpkins would be borne on the vine, so I resigned myself to one show stopping gourd.  One is better than none.

It’s now matured, with orange blushing its skin, and today, I can proudly announce that I have applied the latest research and cutting edge technology to grow a pumpkin the size of my shoe.  The miniature pumpkins are larger than this.

Stuck without a decent-sized Jack O’ Lantern, I’m forced to go shopping.  Fortunately, the local pumpkin patches offer plenty of fun and a wide variety of designer pumpkins. 

Check them out this fall, but visit the farm’s Web site for daily hours.  Find a pumpkin patch near you at Pumpkin Patches and more

This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.

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