There has to be a reason Cinderella's fairy godmother chose a pumpkin — not an apple, orange or melon — to turn into a beautiful carriage. Perhaps there is something magical about this fruit, something that has a hold over everyone during the fall season. • It would be hard to imagine this time of year without them.
Though they are great for decoration, they are even better as food. Pies, cookies and breads taste better with the sweetness of pumpkin flavor. And pumpkin beer? Several craft brewers, like Dogfish Head and Shipyard Brewing, make this seasonal variety.
Many people buy only canned pumpkin or packaged muffins and breads instead of dealing with the chopping, scooping and scraping of a whole pumpkin. But what if the aisles at grocery stores where canned pumpkin is stocked were naked?
It happened in 2009, when a shortage after heavy rainfall on Libby's main crop left people scrambling to find the essential ingredient for their Thanksgiving pies. Some people even bought canned pumpkin puree on eBay at much higher prices. No worries for 2011. This year, the canned pumpkin supply should meet market demand, says a spokeswoman with Libby's, which supplies 80 percent of U.S. canned pumpkin.
While canned is convenient and the content reliable, fresh pumpkin has its advantages, the biggest of which is flavor. Be aware, though, that fresh pumpkin can be a bit more watery than canned, so you may need to adjust other ingredients.
The first thing to know about cooking with fresh pumpkin is that there are certain types that are flavorful and sweet with a smooth consistency. Carving pumpkins are usually stringy and watery, two things you definitely don't want in a holiday dish. If your market has any of these left from Halloween, avoid them for cooking. The types that are recommended for cooking are called pie pumpkins or sugar pumpkins, but some specific names are Baby Pam, Cinderella, Fairytale, Lumina and New England Pie Pumpkins. Butternut squash can also be substituted for pumpkin recipes.
Choose a pumpkin that is firm, without soft spots or puncture wounds. That sandy brown dirt that is sometimes seen on pumpkins is harmless and will come off with a bit of scrubbing.
Buying a pumpkin and gathering ingredients for a recipe is the easy part. The next step is a little trickier, but worth it. Be sure to have a sharp, serrated knife and maybe even an extra set of hands to help cut into the tough exterior of the gourd. Carefully saw the pumpkin in half and use a spoon to dig out the seeds and scrape off the stringy pulp, which is a darker orange than the rest of the pumpkin flesh. Scraping is the most annoying part of this process, so once that is out of the way the rest is a breeze.
Keep the seeds to rinse off and roast later. For a savory mix, season the seeds with salt, garlic powder and cayenne pepper or use butter, brown sugar and cinnamon for those with a sweet tooth. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Depending on the recipe, the next step is to cook the pumpkin until soft, let cool and then peel off the skin. Cooking methods vary by preference, from microwave heating to oven roasting to steaming. Most of the time, it is necessary to add a few inches of water in the dish so the pumpkin doesn't dry out during cooking. Cook evenly and drain the water. If the pumpkin is still watery, strain it through a sieve or colander with very fine holes. Now it is ready to puree for baking or use whole pieces for heartier dishes.
In the 1600s, American Indians introduced pumpkins and squashes to Pilgrims, and these foods quickly became an important staple in their diet. Pumpkin was most likely served for Thanksgiving feasts, though pumpkin pie was not. It is even rumored that Pilgrim men would put the shells of pumpkins on their heads as a guideline for an even haircut, giving them the nickname "pumpkin heads."
Of course, no one would endorse using a pumpkin as a template for a hairstyle in this century. Cooking with the fruit, however, is highly acceptable.
Advanced foodies can try making pumpkin souffles, pumpkin ravioli, pickled pumpkin or pumpkin seed brittle. Of course the classics never go out of style: pumpkin pie, muffins, breads and cookies.
If those dishes aren't convincing that cooking with fresh pumpkin is worth the effort, just try it. And don't worry, that warm, fuzzy feeling is just from putting time and love into the dish.
Information from the AARP newsletter was included in this report. Freelance writer Malory Speir is based in Seminole.