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Pumpkin possibilities

The versatile orange fruit is a star in the kitchen.

By John Edward YoungCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2008

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Depending on where you live, the pumpkin crop this year was either abundant or abysmal. Some of the gourds suffered from torrential summer rains; others benefited from perfect weather to yield a bounty of plump orange. Reports say that rain is responsible for "skinny" pumpkins in Illinois. Rising fuel prices are to blame for Arizona's jacked-up pumpkin prices. Texas simply fears a shortage. Long Island reports its best crop in years. But whether you buy your pumpkin for $1 from a farmer or $17 from an urban center, the fact remains that these humble gourds are still in high demand. And they aren't just for carving anymore.

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No longer are pumpkins carved with a ghoulish grimace or toothy grin, then confined to the front stoop to welcome (or frighten) Halloween trick-or-treaters and left to rot. Today pumpkins are hitting the home-fashion runway. Although the big, bulbous, orange ones are still used mostly for jack-o'-lanterns, dozens of varieties are readily available that aren't destined to go under the knife, but are used in their natural, whole form as home decoration.

There's one for every decor and taste: round ones, flat ones, pinks, grays, and even whites. There are ribbed pumpkins, smooth ones, warty ones, and those with splashes of mixed colors. Some are small enough to nest in a 5-year-old's palm. Others are grown strictly for their gargantuan size. They're trucked to autumn fairs where they can tip the scale at more than 1,500 pounds.

But as Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater knew, where taste really matters is in the kitchen. Still, except when pumpkins make their appearance at Thanksgiving as the ubiquitous pie, they tend to be overlooked as an edible offering.

That's a pity. These members of the squash family are grown on every continent (with the exception of Antarctica) and are versatile enough to be used in any recipe calling for winter squash. They can be baked, steamed, boiled, fried, and microwaved. (To microwave, cut peeled pumpkin in 2-inch chunks, place in a covered dish, and cook for 8 to 9 minutes. A drizzle of maple syrup won't hurt.) And, like any squash, once pumpkin is cooked, it can be scooped in a freezer bag and frozen for up to six months.

Pumpkins have been welcome in the cuisines of Africa, Mexico, and South America for centuries. Argentines make a beef stew in hollowed-out pumpkins using the flesh scraped from the sides of the fruit to thicken the sauce as it cooks.

Adventurous cooks often serve soups in pumpkin terrines. (Simply hollow a large pumpkin, replace the lid, place in a large pan, and bake in a 400 degree F. oven for 20 minutes. VoilĂ !)

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