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Cooking secrets of THE GREAT PUMPKIN

Funny how the pumpkin has become the very face of Halloween, the scariest of holidays.

Indeed, the pumpkin is not at all frightening. For centuries the peoples of the Americas have considered it the friendliest of vegetables, and not just in that most easy and delicious of pies, which also symbolizes the season.

Native cooks from the Iroquois to Mexico and on to Chile found the giant squash to be a bountiful source of food. And the first English settlers report they might not have survived without the local pumpkin, at almost every meal, in gruel, soups, breads and stews as well as sweets.

Today's food scientists report that pumpkin is also a huge harvest of nutrition. Of all the orange foods, pumpkin packs the most beta carotene and Vitamin A (a half-cup has five times the Recommended Daily Allowance) plus potassium and iron and minimal calories.

So now's a perfect time to explore again the ways earlier generations, modern chefs and other cultures have cooked and eaten pumpkin, sometimes in sweet pies and custards, sometimes fired up with pepper.

Native Americans made succotash, Mexican cooks used it in tamale doughs, pie fillings and sauces; and people from the Caribbean and across Latin America made chilies and stews. Many also realized that the pumpkin also could serve as a cooking and serving vessel.

Its creamy consistency makes pumpkin a perfect low-fat base for sauces used in other cuisines, on pasta or meat, shish kebabs and satay.

Most of all, remember that although pumpkin has its own "pumpkin pie spices" of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and mace or even maple syrup, you can also season a pumpkin puree with curry, pepper, ginger, sour cream, cheeses, parsley, chives and other herbs to use it in savory dishes.

And although the sheer size and shape of a pumpkin seems at first unmanageable to modern cooks, the pumpkin is surprisingly easy to work with.

FRESH: While they're in season _ mostly before Halloween _ you can use small pie pumpkins (sometimes called sugar pumpkins) to make pumpkin pie filling or pudding from scratch. It will taste more delicate than canned pumpkin.

Look for bright color and a hard stem. Big size doesn't matter but do ask the produce staff to point out the freshest if you're going to use them for food rather than decoration.

Scoop out seeds, rinse, and scatter on paper towels to dry.

Roast the seeds on an oiled cookie sheet in a 250-degree oven.

To cook fresh pumpkin, cut the pumpkin into chunks and steam or microwave. When slightly soft, remove skin and mash or process into a puree. If it's too watery, heat briefly to reduce it to the desired consistency.

CANNED and FROZEN: A bonus advantage of pumpkin is that it survives processing exceptionally well, according to most experts, so it's ready to use in soups and sauces with little effort.

Some prepared pumpkin is already seasoned for pies, so look for unseasoned if you want a different flavor.

Here are some recipes to try:

Joyce Rosencrans, food editor of the Cincinnati Post, and the Los Angeles Daily News contributed to this report.

Lighter Pumpkin Pie

1 unbaked 9-inch deep-dish pie shell (4-cup volume)

} cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon cinnamon

{ teaspoon ground ginger

{ teaspoon salt

2 egg whites

1} cups (16-ounce can) solid-pack pumpkin

1{ cups (12-ounce can) evaporated skimmed milk

Prepare pie shell. If not using a deep-dish pan, bake the extra pie filling in a custard cup or two along with the pie. Have oven heating to 425 degrees, rack at bottom. If using a metal or foil pie pan, preheat a heavy-duty cookie sheet to promote browning of the bottom crust.

Combine sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, ginger and salt in small bowl. Beat egg whites lightly in large bowl. Stir in pumpkin and sugar mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes; lower temperature to 350 and bake 30-40 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.

Variation: Substitute two 9-inch shallow pie shells (2-cup volume). Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then at 350 for 15-20 minutes or until pies test done.

Yield: 8 servings. Prep time: 10 minutes. Baking: 45 minutes. Cooling: 30 minutes.

Source: Libby.

Thai Pumpkin Satay

1 cup solid-pack canned pumpkin

cup milk

cup peanut butter (low-fat okay)

cup chopped green onion

2 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon soy sauce

\ teaspoon salt

[-\ teaspoon cayenne

1 pound (about 4) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into {-inch strips

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch chunks

1 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch pieces, white part only

Hot cooked rice

For satay sauce, blend pumpkin, milk, peanut butter, green onion, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, sugar, soy sauce, salt and cayenne in blender or food processor. Combine { cup of sauce with chicken strips in medium bowl; cover with plastic wrap (not foil); refrigerate 1 hour.

Place chicken, red pepper and onion alternately on skewers. Broil or grill 10 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink, turning once halfway through. Serve over rice with remaining satay sauce.

Yield: 4 servings. Prep time: 1 hour to marinate; broiling/grilling 10 minutes.

Source: Nestle.

Pumpkin Apricot Breakfast Bars

1} cups solid-pack canned pumpkin

1} cups toasted wheat germ (supermarket wheat germ is usually pretoasted)

1 cup all-purpose flour

cup packed dark-brown sugar (or add a teaspoon of molasses to light- brown sugar)

3 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened

2 eggs

2 teaspoons baking soda

{ teaspoon salt

{ teaspoon cinnamon

{ cup chopped walnuts, toasted in a dry skillet

{ cup coarsely chopped dried apricots (microwave in a little orange juice if not moist)

{ cup chopped dates or raisins

2 tablespoons apricot jam or preserves

Combine pumpkin, wheat germ, flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a large mixer bowl; beat just until blended. Stir in walnuts, apricots and dates. Spread in greased 13- by 9-inch baking pan. Bake in preheated 375-degree oven 18-20 minutes or until pick inserted in center comes out clean. Spread with apricot jam or sieved preserves. Serve warm or cool on wire rack and cut into bars.

Yield: 16 bars. Prep time: 35 minutes. Baking: 20 minutes.

Source: Libby.

Pumpkin Chili Mexicana

{ cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, minced

{ cup diced red bell pepper

{ cup diced green bell pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound ground turkey OR lean ground beef

1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained

1} cups canned OR cooked pureed fresh pumpkin

1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce

1 can (15\ ounces) kidney beans, rinsed and drained

1 can (4 ounces) diced green chilies

{ cup canned OR frozen corn

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

{ teaspoon ground black pepper

Shredded Cheddar cheese, diced green onions and dairy sour cream for garnish (optional)

Saute onion, garlic and peppers in oil in 6-quart saucepan 5- 7 minutes or until tender. Add ground meat; cook until browned; drain.

Add tomatoes, pumpkin, tomato sauce, kidney beans, chilies, corn, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Serve; garnished as desired with cheese, green onions and sour cream. Makes about 10 servings.

Source: Los Angeles Daily News.

Pumpkin Apple Gingerbread

3{ cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

2{ teaspoons ground ginger

{ teaspoon baking soda

{ teaspoon salt

{ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 cup butter OR margarine, softened

1 cup granulated sugar

{ cup packed brown sugar

4 eggs

1} cups canned OR cooked pureed fresh pumpkin

{ cup molasses

1 large pippin OR Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and shredded (about 1 cup)

Powdered sugar

Hard Sauce:

1 cup softened butter

4 cups sifted powdered sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine flour, baking powder, ginger, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice in medium bowl. Cream butter and granulated and brown sugars in large mixer bowl until light and fluffy. Add eggs, two at a time, beating well after each addition. Add pumpkin, molasses and apple; beat well. Add flour mixture; mix until well-blended. Spoon batter into well-greased and floured 12-cup Bundt pan.

Bake in preheated 350-degree oven 1 hour or until wooden pick comes out clean. Cool on wire rack 15 minutes; remove from pan. Dust with powdered sugar before serving warm with Hard Sauce. Makes 12-20 servings.

Hard Sauce: Beat softened butter, sifted powdered sugar and vanilla in small mixer bowl until smooth.

Note: Recipe may also be made in 2 (8- or 9-inch) round cake pans or 1 (13- by 9-inch) pan. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven 40-45 minutes.

Source: Los Angeles Daily News.

Fluffy Pumpkin Angel Torte

1 package 1-step white angel food cake mix

} cup canned OR cooked, pureed fresh pumpkin

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

{ teaspoon ground cloves

{ package (5.2 ounces) whipped topping mix

Ground nutmeg (optional)

Candy Leaves (optional)

Orange peel (optional)

Prepare cake mix as directed on package _ except remove 1 cup of cake batter. Fold { cup pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger and cloves into 1 cup batter. Fold pumpkin-batter mixture into remaining cake batter. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven as package directs.

Prepare topping mix as directed on package _ except use low-fat milk. Fold remaining \ cup pumpkin into whipped topping (mixture will be soft).

Split cake to make 3 layers. (To split, mark side of cake with toothpicks and cut with long, thin, serrated knife.) Fill layers with about 1 cup whipped topping mixture. Frost cake with remaining whipped topping mixture. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Garnish with Candy Leaves and orange peel. Refrigerate any remaining torte. Makes 16 servings.

Candy leaves: Heat butterscotch-flavored chips and a little shortening (about 1 teaspoon shortening to { cup chips) until melted. Drizzle on the backs of washable artificial leaves OR lemon leaves with a spoon; let dry. Heat semisweet chocolate chips and a little shortening until melted. Brush evenly over butterscotch, completely covering backs of leaves; let dry. Carefully peel off leaves.

Source: Los Angeles Daily News.

Mexican Pumpkin Turnovers

Pastry:

2 cups flour

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

{ teaspoon salt

cup solid vegetable shortening, chilled

About \ cup ice water

Filling:

1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin

\ cup packed brown sugar

2 teaspoons anise seed

{ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

\ teaspoon salt

Assembly:

1 egg, beaten, OR 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 tablespoons granulated sugar mixed with 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

To make pastry, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in food processor fitted with a steel blade, or a mixing bowl. Add shortening and cut in with steel blade or a pastry blender until pieces are about the size of coarse grains. Sprinkle ice water, a tablespoon at a time, over dough and mix just until dough begins to hold together. Form into ball with your hands, wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes.

To make filling, combine pumpkin puree, sugar, anise seed, nutmeg and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes. Cool to room temperature before using.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured board into a disc about [-inch thick.

For empanadas, cut dough into 4- to 5-inch circles; for empanaditas, cut into 3-inch circles. Spoon a heaping tablespoon of filling on { of each large circle or a heaping teaspoon on each small circle.

Moisten edges of circle with cold water and fold uncovered side of circle over filled side to form a half-moon shape. Press edges together with tines of fork or a rolling fluted pastry wheel. Place pastries on a lightly greased baking sheet; brush tops with egg or butter.

Bake in preheated 400-degree oven until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Remove to a wire rack to cool briefly. Sprinkle with sugar-cinnamon mixture while still hot. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes about 12 empanadas or 36 empanaditas.

Note: Empanadas con calabaza, spicy sweet pumpkin puree encased in pastry half-moons, are a favorite snack or dessert in Mexico, especially during the Christmas season. Of course, you can use any cooked winter squash in place of pumpkin.

Source: Squash Cookbook, by James McNair, Chronicle Books.

Pumpkin Risotto

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 stalk celery, chopped

4 strips bacon, chopped

1 pound pumpkin, peeled and cut into very small cubes

1{ cups (10 ounces) Arborio rice

2-2{ cups chicken OR vegetable stock

{ cup dry white wine

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat butter and oil in a medium heavy saucepan over low heat. Add onion, carrot, celery and bacon and fry 10 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from heat and puree in a blender or food processor. Return mixture to rinsed-out pan.

Add pumpkin and cook gently 5 minutes, then add rice. In a separate saucepan, heat stock to simmering and add wine.

Add wine-stock mixture to main saucepan in cup quantities, waiting until liquid has been absorbed before adding more. When you have about cup left, rice should be al dente, but, if you prefer a creamier-textured risotto, add remaining wine and stock.

Just before serving, add cheese, stirring vigorously 1-2 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Source: The Vegetable Market Cookbook, by Robert Budwig (Ten Speed Press).

Miff's Spicy Pumpkin Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 shallots, chopped

2 celery stalks, sliced

2 medium carrots, coarsely chopped

2 medium potatoes, diced

1 tablespoon ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

{ teaspoon ground cinnamon

\ teaspoon ground cloves

Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

2 pounds pumpkin, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

5 cups vegetable stock

Plain yogurt and fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

Heat oil in a 3-quart saucepan; add shallots and celery and saute 5 minutes. Add carrots and potatoes and saute 5 minutes. Add coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg and stir-fry 2 minutes. Add pumpkin and stock, bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently 20 minutes or until all vegetables are tender.

Blend soup in a food processor or blender until smooth and return to pan. Adjust seasonings and heat through.

Serve hot, garnished with a swirl of yogurt and cilantro. Makes 4-6 servings.

Source: The Inspired Vegetarian, by Louise Pickford (Stewart, Tabori and Chang).

Locro de Zapallo (Peru)

1 onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2-4 serrano or jalapeno chilies

1 tablespoon safflower oil

2 pounds pumpkin (or winter squash) peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes

2 white potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths

\ cup evaporated milk or half-and-half, at room temperature

1 cup white cheese (queso blanco) or feta cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

Saute the onion, garlic and chilies in the oil. Add the pumpkin and the potatoes and a little water if necessary. Cover and cook over low heat until the pumpkin and potatoes are tender.

Add the milk and cheese and heat through. Correct the seasoning. Garnish with additional cheese. Serves 6

Note: traditionally, this vegetarian stew is served with rice but also goes well with a big lettuce and avocado salad.

In Argentina, a similar locro is made with chopped bacon, Munster cheese and and cumin and is garnished with fresh parsley.

Source: South American Cooking, Barbara Karoff, Aris Books, $18.95.

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