Beyond pie, with all due respect
by Robert Booz
Imagine a world without pumpkin pie. It wouldn’t make sense here in New England, home of Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, and the iconic One Pie canned pie filling. Everyone wants pumpkin muffins, ice cream, and of course, pumpkin pie. But there is so much more to pumpkin than sweets. The pumpkin is just too versatile for its own good. There are pumpkin curries and Mexican pumpkin stews and soufflés, and so much more.
For a little background, the pumpkin is a North American native, a member of the Cucurbita genus (think squash and gourds) hailing, originally, from Mexico. It’s been here in New England longer than most any of us, except maybe the Wampanoag tribe in Aquinnah. Native Americans prized all varieties of squash and even used larger pumpkins as cooking vessels. Europeans too had a fondness for pumpkin, or as they called it then pumpion, ever since the fruit traveled back to the continent with Columbus. According to Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald in America’s Founding Food: The Story of New England Cooking, by the time the colonists arrived, they were old hands at pumpkin cookery, both savory and sweet.
Pumpkin is the king of fall. There are jack-o-lanterns dotting almost every doorstep come late October, but the more eater-friendly versions are found at markets and farms all over the Island. This year marked a decade of the pumpkin festival at Morning Glory Farm, and besides seeing a hay maze and pumpkin trebuchet, visitors purchased all sorts of cooking varieties grown on the farm’s four-and-a-half-acre pumpkin patch.Varieties like the small, round, orange, and delicious Baby Pam pumpkin, and heirlooms such as the New England Pie and the Long Island Cheese. The latter, though short on orange hue, is different because of the cheese-like texture that it gets when cooked.
Act fast on your cooking, however; unlike its heartier siblings the winter squashes (acorn, butternut, Hubbard), pumpkin doesn’t cellar particularly well. Maybe this is why I stay so fond of it, not getting sick of it they way I do of other squashes. Maybe it’s because the pumpkin is just such a good vessel for flavor, taking on other ingredients and elevating them without ever losing its essential taste. In The Flavor Bible, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg identify 81 different flavor pairings alone, everything from amaretti to turnips, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Make soups and stews, roasts and pastas, and yes, maybe even a pumpkin pie or two.
The great thing about pumpkin seeds is that they come with the pumpkin and they are so easy to prepare. Just remove them from the pulp, rinse them, dry them and toss them in whatever fat and spices you would like. Morning Glory Farm’s Simon Athearn likes them with Cajun spice (see the recipe for Roasted Pumpkin for some suggestions to get you started). Whatever flavor combination you choose, roast them in a 400°F oven for about 12 minutes or until they are done to your liking.
Seeds make a healthy and delicious snack, especially while carving a jack-olantern, as well as a wonderful garnish for things like salads and soups. You can hull them if you like, to expose the green seeds, known as pepitas. The hulls add a little extra fiber to your diet, but they are a lot of work to chew. Instead of tossing them with salt, boil them for about 10 minutes in salty water before roasting them; this will season them and soften them at the same time.
Pumpkin beer has a long history here in New England.
When the colonists were first settling America, malt had to be imported or grown and malted, a costly and fickle endeavor. Pumpkins grew plentifully and had a high enough sugar content that they could be added to the mash and fermented. Colonists added all sorts of squash and other fruits to their beers, sometimes with mixed results. Beer in those days wasn’t always the tasty beverage it tends to be today.
There are innumerable amounts of pumpkin beers to choose from on the market these days, good ones too. If you like heavily spiced, dessert-type concoctions you might try a Shipyard Pumpkinhead or a Southern Tier Pumking. Post Road makes a wonderful malty version. My personal favorite is Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale, which is crisp and unassumingly pumpkiny. Blue Moon also makes a refreshing ale and Offshore Ale Company in Oak Bluffs taps a Pumpkin Ale seasonally that their brewer, Neil Atkins, has perfected. All of these will pair well with any of the recipes here.
2012 was a great year for pumpkins on the Island, and hopefully 2013 will be too. Plant your pumpkin seeds when the days are getting into the 70’s and the majority of spring rain has passed. Pumpkins love a sunny spot, and give them plenty of room to spread out, because whether you want them to or not they are going to; a single vine can easily reach over 20 feet long, not to mention its runners. Don’t be shy about pruning, the plants can take it. Tight on space? You can train a pumpkin plant to grow up the side of a shed or porch and onto the roof to increase your garden’s footprint. Get creative; just remember to keep them watered.
As far as varieties go, there are many. For jack-o-lanterns you may want to look at the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, long a standard bearer for uniformity and beauty, but leaving something to be desired in taste. For eating, Morning Glory has come to swear by the Baby Pam and New England Pie, good bets and I encourage them, but you may want to try something interesting like a warty Black Futzu, or the Cinderella, a deep-orange-hued beauty that makes a great serving vessel for other foods. And if you grow them at home, you can also enjoy the edible pumpkin flowers.