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Can you eat a jack-o’-lantern? And other thoughts on cooking with whole pumpkins

By Michelle Stark | Times Staff
Published: October 18, 2017 Updated: October 20, 2017 at 12:02 AM
EVE EDELHEIT | Times A pumpkin dish during a photo shoot for the taste section at the Tampa Bay Times office in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday, October 12, 2017.

The pumpkin is sweating, and so am I.

Ive got my knife an inch into the watermelon-sized orb, which is staring at me all like, "Im too cute to be dinner!"

It is adorable, deep orange and perfectly ridged, sitting just slightly lopsided with a stem jutting out the top. It conjures pumpkin patches and spooky front porches on Halloween night. It seems a little out of place next to my stove.

I raise my elbow, angle the knife downward, and plunge it further into the flesh.

Lets start with this: You can eat your jack-o-lantern.

Roasted, pureed, cubed technically, all pumpkins are edible. But there are important distinctions to make when you set out to cook with whole pumpkins, like I did on one recent 95-degree October day.

The pumpkins most suitable for carving into fun Halloween decorations are typically grown specifically for that purpose, bred to be larger and more hollow. They are not ideal for cooking, more watery and less tasty than smaller, sweeter varieties. (I also cant vouch for the safety of all pumpkins sold in stores that are not labeled for cooking.) In Florida, the recipe-friendly varieties are mainly sugar or pie pumpkins, those smaller, 4- to 6-pound cuties you see at most grocery stores this time of year.

Carving pumpkins are harder to cook with, like a stubborn sweet potato but 10 times bigger. But I had to know: If it could be done, could I do it? And what would it taste like?

I cleave the pumpkin clean in half. It takes some extra muscle and I am afraid of cutting my hand off, but its not impossible.

A familiar odor wafts up, one that yanks me back to messy childhood pumpkin carving sessions and that musky, slightly moldy smell. This is a bit softer than that, but still, it is there, reminding me that this is a pumpkin, and that pumpkins do not come ready to be jammed into steamy lattes.

I scoop stringy innards out with a spoon and, at one point, my hand. It is an annoying amount of work, and kind of gross, too. I glance longingly at the can of pumpkin puree in my pantry, sitting there mocking me for getting involved with this big squashy mess.

I put one half of the pumpkin, skin and everything, on a baking sheet and carefully that sucker is heavy place it in the oven. Pumpkin innards require heat to be turned into much of anything. And making puree is probably the easiest way to transform a whole pumpkin into something you can eat, so thats what I do.

After some time in the oven, the flesh of a pumpkin can easily be scooped out and worked into various dishes. This will most closely resemble the canned pumpkin that is called for in most recipes.

But there are advantages whole pumpkins have over the canned stuff.

Similar to their squash cousins butternut, acorn and spaghetti, pumpkins can be used both for their insides and their shells. A half pumpkin is a perfect vessel for rice or quinoa mixtures, and even easier to work with than those other oddly shaped squash. Smaller pumpkins tend to be perfectly round.

You can also chunk up a whole pumpkin, dicing the innards into small pieces that can stand in admirably for something like sweet potato. And theyre cheap. I found sugar pumpkins at the store for less than 99 cents a pound recently; 10- to 12-pound carving pumpkins generally hover between $5 and $10 during October.

I cook the pumpkin halves one at a time, and when theyre done, begin to scoop out flesh. Its bright orange, and not as smooth or scoopable as I expect. And even though the ratio of edible pumpkin to outer skin is smaller than in a sugar pumpkin, there is still a lot to contend with. It doesnt smell great, either.

I taste some, unseasoned except for a bit of salt and pepper. It tastes a bit like, oh, whats the term: hot baby food.

I scoop it immediately into a big pot, smother it with chicken broth, some coconut milk and practically my whole salt shaker. Simmer, simmer, simmer. More salt. Pepper. Immersion blender to create a more pleasing texture.

An hour later, its soup. Its fine. Its edible.

But I think that pumpkin would have been better on my porch.

Contact Michelle Stark at [email protected] Follow @mstark17.