Pumpkin: beyond the pie and jack-o'-lantern

Pumpkin recipes, both sweet and savory, are plentiful for easy pumpkin-themed dinners.

"An all-pumpkin menu?" asked my friend, incredulously. "That sounds like too much of a good thing, if you ask me."

Perhaps, but it's a short season, and many cooks delight in boldly celebrating the autumn harvest with a pumpkin-themed dinner, starring the bright-orange squash from start to finish, appetizer to dessert.

The humble gourd, which is more often carved than cooked, even stars on all-pumpkin menus at such upscale establishments as the Princess cruise ships every Thanksgiving. The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif., heralds the tiny coastal town's self-declared "Pumpkin Capital of the World" motto with an elegant six-course pumpkin dinner.

So the versatile pumpkin can be dressed up for fine dining, but it is also excellent when prepared simply, and recipes – both sweet and savory – are plentiful for home cooks who might want to host their own pumpkin-themed meal without too much fuss.

Dig for recipes at your local pumpkin festival, on the Internet from one of the many culinary sites or blogs that constantly sprout new crops of seasonal recipes (such as chocolateandzucchini.com and Kiplog.com/food) or best of all, from a pumpkin-themed cookbook by a reputable writer whose recipes you know you can count on. Cookbooks featuring pumpkins have become almost as numerous as jack-o'-lanterns on Halloween.

"Holiday Pumpkins," by Georgeanne Brennan and Jennifer Barry (Ten Speed Press), is a good place to start. Other cookbooks that will stimulate your creativity and arouse your passion for pumpkin are "The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook," by Michael Krondl, (Celestial Arts), and "Pumpkin: A Super Food for All 12 Months of the Year," by DeeDee Stovel (Storey Publishing).

Whatever you're looking for, whether it's a simple soup, an exotic entree such as Moroccan Chicken and Pumpkin Stew, or a traditional pie, you'll find in one of these terrific recipe collections. Except for the pocket-size "Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook," which focuses only on recipes, these books also answer any questions about pumpkins ranging from their history to methods for cooking to preparing and storing.

For instance, one might not know that the pumpkins many people carve for Halloween are not the best for eating. Those jack-o'-lanterns tend to be dry and stringy and should, therefore, stay on the doorstep.

Instead look for sugar pumpkins, which are sweeter and denser. Other good choices are the pale-skinned Long Island cheese pumpkin, a Japanese pumpkin known as Kabocha, or a bright orange French Red or Cinderella pumpkin.

Cooking with fresh pumpkin is typically best, but time-strapped cooks in need of puréed pumpkin for breads or desserts could always resort to canned, unsweetened purée, which is easily found at supermarkets.

For serving a soup, risotto, pudding, or stuffed pumpkin dish, hollowed-out mini-pumpkins are a popular presentation. Just be sure to prepare the pumpkin tureens carefully by first washing the skin, then rubbing it gently with oil (such as canola), and baking the mini-pumpkins in a preheated 350 degree F. oven for 30 minutes.

The possibilities are many when cooking with pumpkin. It can be roasted, steamed, grilled, pureed, or even microwaved into a diversity of dishes. Some dishes might only hint of pumpkin while others are rich with its flavor.

So pay no heed to friends who balk at the idea of a multicourse pumpkin menu. Your harvest celebration can be surprisingly varied and deliciously memorable.

What some consider "too much of a good thing" could even become an annual tradition!

Southwest Chicken Pumpkin Soup

1/2 pound fresh pumpkin, seeds and fibers removed, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for brushing chunks
1 large onion, thinly sliced (about 1-1/2 cups)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves or thighs, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 to 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro (for garnish)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Brush each pumpkin chunk with oil. Bake for 45 minutes or until the pumpkin is easily pierced with a fork. Cool slightly and peel. Measure out 1 cup and mash. Any remaining pumpkin can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the onion slices and cook for several minutes until they begin to wilt. Add the garlic and bell pepper and continue cooking and stirring for a few more minutes until softened.

In a small bowl, mix the chicken with the cumin, salt, pepper flakes, and a few grinds of black pepper.

Add the chicken mixture to the onion mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the aromas rise from the pot as the chicken begins to cook. Stir in the pumpkin and tomato paste and cook for several minutes, until well blended. Add the broth and corn, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 5 to 15 minutes, until the chicken is tender and no longer pink.

Season with the lime juice, then taste, and add more salt if needed. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with cilantro. Serves 6.

Source: 'Pumpkin: A Super Food for All 12 Months of the Year'

Pumpkin Corn Bread

1/3 cup corn oil
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
1-1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
2 tablespoons brown sugar

Brush the inside of a 9- to 10-inch cast-iron skillet with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Place in the oven, then set the oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, combine the pumpkin, buttermilk, remaining oil, eggs, and brown sugar. Then stir the dry ingredients into the wet until just combined.

Remove the skillet from the oven, pour in the batter, return to the oven, and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the center is firm. Serve warm in wedges. Serves 8 to 10.

Source: 'The Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook'

Pumpkin Cheesecake in a Gingersnap-Walnut Crust

For the crust:
6 ounces gingersnap cookies, finely ground to make 2-1/2 cups
4 to 5 ounces walnuts, finely ground, to make 3/4 cup
1/4 cup granulated sugar
4 to 5 tablespoons butter, melted

For the filling:
Two 8-ounce packages cream cheese at room temperature
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs
3-1/3 cups homemade or canned pumpkin purée
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground mace
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. In a small bowl, mix the ground cookies, walnuts, granulated sugar, and melted butter. Press the mixture over the bottom of a 9-by-2-1/2-inch round springform pan. Using your fingertips, push all but a thin coating of the cookie mixture toward the sides of the pan. Pressing with your fingers, make a crust about 1-1/2 inches up the sides of the pan; the edges will be slightly irregular.

Bake until lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let cool thoroughly in the refrigerator before filling.

To make the filling: In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and brown sugar together until well blended. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until the mixture is smooth and uniform.

In a medium bowl, use a spoon to mix the pumpkin purée, cream, and spices together until well blended. Add the pumpkin mixture to the cream cheese mixture, mixing until well blended. Pour the filling into the crust and bake for about 50 minutes, or until the center barely moves when jiggled.

Let cool on a wire rack, then refrigerate at least overnight before serving. To serve, run a knife around the edge of the pan, then release the sides, leaving the bottom of the pan in place. Serve chilled. Serves 12.

Source: 'Holiday Pumpkins: A Collection of Inspired Recipe, Gift, and Decorations'

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