It's pumpkin season. Or should I say pumpkin pie spice season, because that's really the flavor that drives us to giddiness (and to Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts) earlier and earlier each year for a taste of fall.
Some time in September, the pumpkin offerings begin to turn up. Shock Top, Blue Moon and Shipyard, among other beermakers, release pumpkin brews. Any coffee joint worth its weight in beans is pouring a pumpkin latte or some such autumnal elixir. Pumpkin bread, muffins and bagels are being smeared with pumpkin cream cheese across the land. LongHorn Steakhouse is serving a pumpkin spice lava cake dessert, and the trendy dessert-in-a-jar phenomenon has taken hold at Red Lobster, where the seasonal dessert is Pumpkin Pie in a Jar.
All pretty tasty, except for the pumpkin spice M&M's we were unfortunate enough to sample. A colleague with uber-perceptive taste buds said they smacked of air freshener. Interesting that we know that's not a good thing despite never having sampled air freshener.
These mostly sweet, seasonal offerings hang on the power of pumpkin pie spice — cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. The pumpkin, I am afraid, is incidental.
But it shouldn't be, for on its own, pumpkin can be used in soups and baked goods, pastas and fondues, and even scooped into applesauce, smoothies and yogurt to add both nutrition and fiber. In its natural state without the addition of sweet spices and sugar, pureed pumpkin plays well with lots of ingredients. Sage and thyme are amiable companions, making pumpkin well-suited for savory dishes too.
Its good-for-you attributes include fiber and vitamins A and C, plus folic acid and beta-carotene. I am a fan of opening a can of pumpkin puree — read labels carefully and don't buy pumpkin pie filling — rather than peeling, seeding, boiling (or roasting) a pumpkin. Besides the long process, I am never sure what I am going to end up with. There are many varieties of pumpkins, but unless you live near a working pumpkin patch, you'll need to select yours from the store.
The behemoth pumpkins favored by carvers are not suitable for cooking, though their seeds can be roasted and salted for snacks. Carving pumpkins tend to be stringy and watery, which makes the flavor weak. For cooking, smaller pumpkins — sometimes labeled sugar — are best. Less string, more concentrated flavor.
Even so, hand me the can opener. That can on the shelf represents consistent flavor and texture, something I can't depend on from that pile of festive pumpkins at the store.
A 15-ounce can is about 1 ½ cups of pureed pumpkin. Open one and use it several ways over the course of a week. Here are suggestions from various sources including Food Network magazine, Bon Appétit, Rachael Ray Magazine, TLC and my own kitchen experiments:
Oatmeal For every cup of oatmeal you make, stir in ½ cup of pumpkin. To sweeten, add brown sugar and raisins, if you'd like.
Smoothie Wake up a banana smoothie by adding 1 cup pumpkin to 1 cup each vanilla yogurt and ice, plus 1 banana and a couple of teaspoons of honey. Crumble graham crackers on the top if you'd like.
Mac and Cheese Stir ½ can of pumpkin into your homemade cheese sauce before pouring on cooked pasta, or even add pumpkin to a mac-and-cheese mix.
Chili Add a can to a large pot of chili. No one will suspect that it's pumpkin, and they'll wonder what you did to make yours taste so delicious and different.
Salad dressing A tablespoon or more whisked into homemade vinaigrettes or creamy dressings gives your salad an earthy kick.
Cheese Ball Pulse 8 ounces of goat cheese, 2 cups grated asiago, ¾ cup pumpkin and ½ teaspoon each paprika and coarse salt. Form into a couple of balls and then roll them in a mixture of chopped pecans and pumpkin seeds. Serve with crackers.
Pasta Sauce Add a few tablespoons of pumpkin to butter or cream sauce and toss with pasta of your choice. Earthy Parmesan cheese and hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas) are great garnishes.
Omelet Jazz up an omelet by adding a dollop or two of pumpkin to sauteed mushrooms then folding the mixture inside the omelet with crumbled feta cheese.
Grits For every ¾ cup of quick grits, add ½ cup pumpkin.
Pumpkin Spice Cake Add 1 can of pumpkin to a spice cake mix, leaving out water, oil and eggs, and then bake according to package instructions for a 9- by 13-inch pan. Lower in fat, higher in nutrition. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar after it's cooled rather than frosting.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.