When a Pumpkin is Not Just Another Pretty Face

Alex Dowse looks out over a field of 4,000 pounds of pumpkins soon to be sold from his family's farm stand. They are all lined up in a conspiracy of orange, pressing the flesh - for a seasonal campaign.

"I have just one rule here," announces Mr. Dowse, "If you can't pick it up and carry it, you can't have it!" Such a rule makes customers laugh, especially families shopping for just the right pumpkin to grace their front stoop.

"Most people buy pumpkins for decorative purposes. Fall just isn't right without a cornstalk and a pumpkin," Dowse says. "Selecting a pumpkin is truly a family event."

Dowse should know. His family's farmland has been producing pumpkins for close to 200 years. This season, the Dowse's stand has sold close to 50 tons so far - at 29 cents a pound. He's had a bumper crop this year, which is good because last year's drought forced local merchants to truck pumpkins in from as far away as Texas.

Here varieties range from the smaller New England Sugar pumpkin (great for cooking) to the larger Howden (great for display). The Dowse's have also grown a patch of Atlantic Giants, known to balloon up into the hundreds of pounds.

For people interested in purchasing a smaller variety for Halloween and Thanksgiving dcor, Dowse offers a few suggestions:

"Pick one that has no soft spots. If you're planning to carve, wait until the last week so it doesn't rot, " he says. Also, if a frost is predicted, throw a blanket over your pumpkin to help protect it.

Dowse encourages people to grow their own: Dry the pumpkin seeds on a window sill on a paper towel, save them in an envelope, and plant them in the spring. Of course the seeds may never make it into the ground if you toast them into a tasty snack.

Simply spread seeds on a lightly- buttered baking sheet, (no need to rinse them) sprinkle with a bit of salt, and place them in a 250 degree F. oven until dry and crisp.

As for the pumpkin meat, think pie, soup, muffins - even pasta. While most people tend to gravitate toward the canned variety these days, you can't beat the flavor and texture of fresh.

Cut pumpkin into large chunks; scrape out seeds and extraneous fiber. Steam over boiling water (covered) about 30 minutes, or bake skin-side-up in a roasting pan with 1/2-inch water at 350 degrees F. until tender (about 1 hour). Scrape pumpkin flesh from skin and pure in food processor until smooth.

Gingered Pumpkin-Apple Soup

1-1/2 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 medium celery stalks, finely diced

4 cups chicken stock

1 pound pumpkin pure

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 teaspoon curry powder

2 cups milk or cream

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Salt to taste

2 tart apples, peeled, cored, diced

Chopped toasted almonds (optional garnish)

Heat the butter in a soup pot. Add onion and celery and saut over medium heat until the onion is golden. Add chicken stock, pumpkin pure, ginger, and curry.

Bring to boil, then simmer over low heat, covered, for 35 or 40 minutes. Stir in enough milk or cream to smooth out and thicken the soup. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and diced apples.

Remove from heat. Allow soup to stand several hours or overnight. Taste and add more seasonings if needed.

Heat through when ready to serve. Garnish with toasted almonds.

Serves 6 to 8.

Pumpkin-Stuffed Jumbo Pasta Shells

1 12-oz. box jumbo pasta shells

3 cups fresh pumpkin pure, (or canned pumpkin)

2/3 cup chopped pecans, lightly toasted

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 cup chopped parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For topping:

1/2 cup butter

1or 2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup soft (fresh) bread crumbs, lightly toasted

1/2 teaspoon dry sage

Chopped parsley for garnish

Choose 20 uncracked pasta shells, and cook according to box directions. Rinse with cold water and drain.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In large bowl, combine pumpkin pure, pecans, nutmeg, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Lightly oil a large, shallow baking dish. Stuff each shell with about 2 tablespoons of the pumpkin mixture. Place shells open side up, in a large baking dish. Cover with foil that has been lightly oiled on facing side.

Bake until filling is heated through, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the topping. Melt the butter in a skillet, stirring until it just begins to brown. Stir in garlic, and saut until garlic softens. Remove from heat. Toss in bread crumbs and sage, mixing well with fork.

Place 3 or so shells on each plate, with 2 tablespoons of the topping. Garnish with parsley. Add Parmesan if you wish.

Serves 6 as an appetizer, or 4 as a main course.

Pumpkin Muffins

2 eggs

1/3 cup milk

3/4 cup canned pumpkin, or if fresh, pured, well-drained, packed

1/2 cup cooking oil

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

1-3/4 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon allspice

1/4 cup chopped candied ginger (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large bowl, mix eggs, milk, pumpkin, and oil. Add brown and white sugars. Blend thoroughly.

In another bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and allspice. Add to pumpkin mixture. Stir to mix well, but don't overwork. Pour into 12-cup greased muffin pan, top with candied ginger and bake 15 to 20 minutes.

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