In Praise of the Pumpkin

Gourmet Girl - October 1, 2014

Plus, a few suggestions for enchanted pumpkin fare

Hard to believe it's already October. I'm still buying burrata and pairing it with ripe tomatoes plucked from my garden, but autumn is here, the aspens are turning golden and the blooming chamisa is making me sneeze. And so our thoughts to pumpkins—not just carved Jacko'lanterns but pumpkin pie with cinnamon whipped cream, pumpkin soups and stews, pumpkin muffins, breads and cakes, pumpkin butter and pumpkin-stuffed ravioli. What can't you cook with pumpkin?!

Most people don't know that pumpkins are a variety of squash  native to North America. They're one of the most popular crops in the US, where 1.5 billion pounds are grown each year. We've been eating pumpkin for a long time, as pumpkin seeds found in Mexico date all the way back to 7000-5500 BC.

Almost the entire pumpkin is edible, including the shell, seeds, leaves and flowers. It's a versatile food that can be baked, boiled, roasted and steamed. In China, the leaves of the pumpkin plant are cooked and eaten and also included in soups. In Myanmar,candied pumpkin is a popular dessert, as  are small pumpkins steamed with custard in Thailand.

The Halloween pumpkin takes its name from the strange phenomenon of flickering lights seen over peat bogs, called will-o'the-wisp,or Jack-o'-lantern. The practice of carving  Jack-o'-lanterns originated in old Ireland, where turnips and beets were carved with frightening faces of spirits or goblins during Samhain, a time when spirits and fairies roamed the earth. During the 19th century, turnips and squash were carved and used as lanterns to guide costumed revelers on All Hallow's Eve. And some  used Jack-o'-lanterns on All Saints' Day to represent Christian souls in purgatory, setting the pumpkins on windowsills to ward bad spirits away.

An Irish myth tells of Stingy Jack, a blacksmith who tricks and traps Satan and only frees him when the Devil agrees never to take his soul. But after he dies, Jack is stuck between Heaven and Hill, so he carves a turnip, puts an ember inside, and begins his endless wanderingin search of a resting place. He's forever known as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack-o'-lantern.

Pumpkins have long been linked to the supernatural through folk tales and legends. People once believed that witches could turn people into pumpkins and, in an age-old fairy tale, Cinderella rides to the ball in a pumpkin her  fairy godmother turned into a carriage.

We can work our own magic with pumpkins, transforming them into delicious treats to be enjoyed throughout the fall. Here are just a few suggestions for enchanted pumpkin fare:

Roasted Pumpkin with Shallots & Sage (From Martha Stewart; Serves 4)
Medium sugar pumpkin (about 4 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 2-inch chunks
4 shallots, peeled and quartered lengthwise
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup fresh sage leaves
Coarse salt and ground pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Divide pumpkin, shallots, oil, and sage between two large rimmed baking sheets; season with salt and pepper, and toss. Roast until pumpkin is tender, 30 to 35 minutes, tossing once and rotating sheets halfway through. Seve hot.

Roasted Pumpkin, Arugula and Cherry Salad (From "etter Homes and Gardens; Serves 8)
1 small pumpkin  (3 to 4 pounds total), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-1/2-inch chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 5 ounce package baby arugula or torn arugula
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas), toasted
1/4 cup dried cherries or dried cranberries
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
Ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Line a 15x10x1-inch baking pan with foil; set aside. In a large bowl combine pumpkin chunks, the 2 tablespoons olive oil, the 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the 1/4 teaspoon pepper; toss to combine. Spread in the prepared baking pan. Roast about 35 minutes or until the pumpkin is tender. Cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, arrange arugula on a large serving platter or bowl. Top with cooled pumpkin, pumpkin seeds, and dried cherries.

For dressing, in a small bowl whisk together the 1/4 cup olive oil, the vinegar, and maple syrup. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Drizzle dressing evenly over the salad. Toss gently to mix.

Pumpkin Ginger Waffles (From Cooking Light; Serves 3-5)
1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled

Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ground ginger, and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Remove 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture and toss with crystallized ginger in a small bowl. Set aside.

Whisk eggs, buttermilk, pumpkin, sugar, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Combine with flour mixture. Stir in butter and fold in reserved crystallized-ginger mixture. Do not overmix.

Heat a waffle iron and make waffles, using about 1/2 cup batter per each one. Serve with maple syrup and whipped cream.