Pumpkins That Make More Than Scary Faces

As summer's green gives way to autumn's gold, pumpkins are suddenly cropping up everywhere.

From Florida to Washington, from New Mexico to New England, pumpkins can be seen dotting furrowed fields like boccie balls, piled in front of farm stands, sporting blue ribbons at local fairs. At the same time, the season's cooler temperatures seem to stoke our appetite for the hearty flavor of homemade pumpkin pies, breads, and stews.

More than any other fruit or vegetable, the pumpkin is suited to both sweet and savory dishes from ice cream to curries.

Perhaps this versatility explains why cookbook writers often consider the pumpkin to be a vegetable when it's really a fruit, belonging to the same family as melons, cucumbers, gourds, and squashes.

Surprisingly, the pumpkin is not only a fruit but also a type of berry, albeit the only one with such a hard outer shell.

Indigenous to the New World, the pumpkin descended from a "gourdlike vegetable with bitter flesh but edible seeds. Remains of these seeds, dating as far back as 7000 to 5000 BC, have been found in burial caves among Mexico's Tamaulipas Mountains," writes Gail Damerow in her new book, "The Perfect Pumpkin," (Storey Publishing, 1997).

A thousand years ago, the Indians at Sky City Pueblo in the Southwest cultivated the acoma, a bluish-shell heirloom pumpkin still cultivated today.

Indian tribes in the Northeastern United States also raised pumpkins. The Patuxent Squanto taught pilgrim settlers how to plant pumpkin vines among the corn stalks. Stored in a cool place, the harvested pumpkins kept through the winter.

The English colonists ate so much of this fruit that the port of Boston was once known as Pumpkinshire. One method the English colonists devised for cooking this squash was to cut off the top and remove the seeds, then fill the empty cavity with milk and bake until the milk was absorbed - a forerunner to our pumpkin pie.

Homemade Pumpkin Puree

Sugar pumpkins - those used for carving jack-o'-lanterns - are generally considered the best for culinary purposes as they are less stringy and watery than other varieties.

Although many pumpkin recipes work with canned pumpkin pure, making your own fresh pure is quite easy to do.

Wash and dry the pumpkin. With a large knife, cut around the stem.

Lift off this lid and remove the seeds and as much fiber as possible. Reserve the lid.

Bake the pumpkin in a roasting pan in the middle of a pre-heated, 350 degree F. oven until the skin can be easily pierced with a fork, about 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

When the pumpkin has cooled, scoop out the flesh and place in a colander to drain.

Pure the flesh in a food processor or with a potato masher. A 3-1/2 pound pumpkin yields about three cups of puree.

Harvest Pumpkin Pie

1-1/2 cups pumpkin puree

1/2 cup unsweetened apple butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

3 large eggs, beaten

1 cup half-and-half

1 deep-dish pie shell

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Stir the pumpkin, apple butter, sugar, and spices together. Add beaten eggs and the half-and-half and mix well.

Pour into an unbaked pie shell and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the pie comes out clean, about one hour. If the edges of the pie crust begin to brown, cover with a strip of aluminum foil.

Let the pie cool completely before refrigerating.

Stuffed Pumpkin

This pumpkin stew is adapted from "The Nine Seasons Cookbook" by Pat Haley, (Yankee Books, 1986).

1 pumpkin, 8 to 10 inches in diameter

1-1/2 pounds ground beef

1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil

3/4 cup finely chopped green pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup finely chopped yellow onion

1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

1-1/2 teaspoons white distilled vinegar

3/4 cup raisins

1-1/2 cups seasoned tomato sauce

1/3 cup apple cider

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Prepare the pumpkin as for homemade pumpkin pure, (above) but bake only half as long.

Brown the ground beef until it just loses its redness. Drain and discard any excess fat, then set the meat aside.

Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet and saut the green pepper, garlic, and onions until soft.

Return the meat to the skillet and add the oregano, vinegar, raisins, tomato sauce and cider. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is absorbed.

Remove the meat mixture from the heat and let cool slightly before adding the eggs; mix thoroughly.

Fill the pumpkin with the stuffing, loosely set the reserved lid on top of the pumpkin and return to the oven to bake until flesh is soft - about 45 minutes to one hour.

Carefully lift the pumpkin onto a large platter.

To serve, remove the lid and, with a large soup ladle, scoop out a the stew, while scraping the side of the roasted pumpkin.

Serves about six.

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