While pumpkin is best known for its starring role in America’s famous Thanksgiving dessert, it’s a more versatile actor than we give it credit for. Pumpkins have a way of reinventing themselves: they sit on doorsteps and make scary faces at Halloween, then reappear in pies a month later. Culinarily speaking, pumpkins are talented at filling numerous roles: their sweet flesh is ideal for lending moisture and texture to baked goods, while their similarity to other squashes makes them perfect for savory dishes.
Native Americans have used pumpkin as a staple food for thousands of years. Remains of pumpkin seeds dating as far back as 7,000 B.C. have been found in burial caves in Mexico. When the Pilgrims landed in North America, Native Americans showed them how to plant pumpkin vines among the corn to reap a plentiful crop, and in 1621, pumpkin was featured as part of the first Thanksgiving feast. Pumpkin’s longevity in generations of gardens and kitchens is partly due to its flexibility: it’s easy to grow in almost any climate, producing prolific and fast-growing vines that even the blackest of thumbs can cultivate. Because pumpkin is a winter squash, it can be stored through the winter. Every part—the leaves, tender shoots, flowers, flesh, seeds and even the rind—is edible.
Varieties of pumpkin are many, from orange or yellow shells to white, green and even blue. Its flesh ranges in texture from meaty to mealy, and pumpkins come in all sizes from miniature to mammoth prizewinners at county fairs.
For cooking, choose a pumpkin that’s specifically grown for eating, such as the sugar pumpkin. Look for a smaller size (which is more tender and succulent) that’s blemish-free and heavy for its size. Store
pumpkins at room temperature up to a month or in the refrigerator up to three months.
A whole pumpkin can be baked; halved or quartered pumpkin can be baked or roasted; and cubed pumpkin can be boiled. Chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli, host of The Cooking Loft on the Food Network and executive chef at Butter restaurant in New York, likes to make her own pumpkin purée by splitting the pumpkin in half, scooping out the seeds and adding butter, brown sugar and a touch of allspice in each pumpkin half.
“Pumpkin is very lean, so it welcomes a little fattiness from the butter and that touch of spice,” Guarnaschelli says. She puts each half on a baking sheet, adds a little water for steam, covers the pan with foil and roasts until ten-der (350Â°F for 40-60 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces). A five-pound pumpkin yields about 41/2 cups of cooked and mashed pumpkin purée.
While solid-pack pumpkin purée is convenient and accessible in the grocery aisle, roasting your own pumpkin when it’s fresh and in season will make you think twice about buying canned. Fresh pumpkin purée is lighter and less sweet. It’s easy to make, freezes well, and the bonus: you get to eat the seeds.
Guarnaschelli remembers her mother using canned pumpkin for pieswhen she was growing up. “Canned pumpkin has a wonderful density to it. But I love to use a fresh pumpkin. It has that fresh-picked taste that’s so important,” she says.
But don’t feel guilty if you’re short on time or cooking a pumpkin dish in the wrong season: canned pumpkin actually has more vitamin A, calcium, folate and fiber than fresh.
While it’s not quite a blank slate, pumpkin has a fairly mild flavor that makes it an ideal canvas for a variety of flavor affinities. It matches well with butter and brown sugar; sweet spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves; savory herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme; garlic and onions; and hard cheeses like Parmesan and Manchego.
Pumpkin is interchangeable with other winter squashes in mostrecipes. Try adding purée to pancake batter or quick bread recipes for additional nutrients and moisture. It’s also great in soup, curry, risotto and vegetable lasagna. A baked pumpkin shell is the perfect edible serving container for soup—or you can use it to make a Pilgrim-style pumpkin “pie” by pouring milk into a hollowed-out pumpkin and roasting until the milk is absorbed.
Guarnaschelli likes to make pumpkin gnocchi, roasting pumpkin flesh and letting it drain overnight in a strainer, then mixing the pumpkin with a little flour and egg for the base. She also tosses a beautiful fall salad with roasted pumpkin, bitter seasonal greens like radicchio and endives, and roasted pumpkin seeds tossed in a little pumpkin seed oil and drizzled with vinaigrette. “This salad is a good way to appreciate the pumpkin in all its forms. You get the sweetness of the pumpkin flesh contrasting with bitter greens, the salty crunch of the pumpkin seeds, and the nutty flavors of the oil,” she says.
Pumpkin seed oil is rare in the U.S., but it’s widely used in Europe, especially Austria, on salads. The oil has an intense nutty taste and is high in good-for-you fats. While pumpkin seed oil looks brown in the bottle, it’s light green when poured out. Find it in specialty shops or online at gourmet food web stores like chefshop.com.
“A small bottle of pumpkin seed oil isn’t that expensive. You could put some oil out with salty cheeses like Gruyere or Beaufort and fresh veggies for dipping,” Guarnaschelli says.
Historically, roasted pumpkin seeds (also called pepitas, Spanish for “little seed of squash”) are widely eaten in Mexico as a snack and used in sauces as a thickener. Their nutty, salty taste is the perfect foil to sautéed or steamed vegetables, oatmeal raisin cookies and fresh green salads. Because of their high oil content, you can even make pumpkin seed pesto with fresh basil, parsley, parmesan, garlic and olive oil.
When it comes to pairing wine with pumpkin dishes, white wines that are dry, tangy or floral are usually a good match. Guarnaschelli, who oversees the wine list at Butter, recommends Grüner Veltliner, Viognier or Roussanne. Since pumpkin flesh is such a versatile ingredient, look to the other flavors in the dish for ideas as well. Light reds like Pinot Noir are excellent with earthy dishes like roasted pumpkin with herbs and spices, and sweet wines like Sauternes and Eiswein match well with pumpkin desserts.
CREAMY SAGE PUMPKIN PASTA
This simple pasta dish is full of fall flavor and makes a perfect vegetarian main dish or a side dish to roast chicken. Serve with a green salad topped with dried cranberries.
1 pound short pasta, such as penne or fusilli
11/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
11/2 cups diced fresh pumpkin OR 1 cup unsweetened
canned pumpkin purée
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup freshly grated or shaved Parmesan
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook pasta according to package directions. Meanwhile, heat olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add onion and garlic; cook until tender (about 5 minutes). Add chicken broth and wine; bring to a boil. Add fresh pumpkin to broth mixture and cook until tender (2-3 minutes). Mash pumpkin with a fork or potato masher. Add heavy cream, sage, nutmeg, salt and pepper, and heat through. (If using canned pumpkin, simply add to hot broth mixture without mashing and continue as above.) Combine pasta and pumpkin sauce and serve warm, topped with Parmesan, in a large decorative bowl. Makes 4 servings.
Wine recommendation: A white Burgundy such as the Olivier Leflaive 2006 Bourgogne Blanc Les Setilles is rich but vibrant, creating a foil to the nutmeg-spiced cream sauce. Or bring out the earthy sage
flavor with a fruity, spicy Pinot Noir like the Stoneleigh 2006 Marlborough Pinot Noir from New Zealand.
PUMPKIN SEED ENCHILADAS
Pumpkin seeds (pepitas) were historically used to thicken sauces in Mexico. In these spicy chicken enchiladas, the seeds add a complex nutty flavor to the tart, acidic tomatillo sauce.
For the enchiladas:
8 cups water
2 bone-in chicken breasts
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)
12 corn tortillas
6 ounces Queso Fresco, crumbled
For the sauce:
1 cup shelled raw pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
11/2 pounds tomatillos (8 medium), chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
Lime wedges, cilantro and sour cream for serving (optional)
Bring water to boil in a large saucepan. Add chicken, garlic and thyme; cover and simmer until chicken is cooked through, about 15-20 minutes. Remove chicken and cool, then shred the meat. Reserve 1 cup of
water for the sauce. Heat a large skillet over medium. Add pumpkin seeds, stirring frequently, until they become fragrant and golden, but not brown (about 5-10 minutes). Set seeds aside to cool.
Add vegetable oil to skillet and heat. Add jalapenos, onion, garlic and tomatillos; cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Place pumpkin seeds, tomatillo mixture, cilantro and 1 cup of reserved water in blender and blend until smooth. Return sauce to pan and season with salt. Cook on low heat for 10 more minutes.
Combine chicken with about a cup of the sauce and half the cheese. Fill tortillas with chicken mixture. Roll up and place seam side down in a 9×13-inch glass pan. Repeat with remaining tortillas. Pour remaining sauce over and spread until all tortillas are covered.
Sprinkle queso fresco onto enchiladas and bake for 25 minutes at 350Â°F. Serve with lime wedges, cilantro and sour cream. Makes 4 servings
Wine recommendation: The Red Newt Cellars 2005 Finger Lakes Cabernet Franc is a surprisingly excellent match, with the acidity to stand up to the tomatillo sauce and a smoky, spicy undertone that enhances the dish’s flavors. Or, cut the spice and complement the natural fruitiness of the tomatillo sauce with a rich, complex Riesling
like the Poet’s Leap 2007 Columbia Valley Riesling.
PUMPKIN BREAD PUDDING WITH CARAMEL RUM SAUCE
This creamy bread pudding comes together in a snap and will wow your dinner guests as the finale to a fall
meal. It’s so moist that the caramel rum sauce is strictly optional—you could add rum-soaked raisins to the bread
pudding instead, and top with fresh whipped cream.
For the bread pudding:
1 15-ounce can pumpkin (unsweetened)
2 large eggs
1 cup half and half
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 cups day-old brioche or French bread, cut
into 1/2 inch cubes
For the caramel rum sauce:
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup dark rum
To make the bread pudding: In a large bowl, whisk pumpkin, eggs, half and half, brown sugar, spices, salt and vanilla. Stir in bread cubes and let stand 15 minutes. Pour bread mixture into a greased 8×8-inch
square glass baking dish and bake at 350Â°F for 20-25 minutes, or until custard is set.
To make the caramel rum sauce: Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn burner to medium low and let sauce bubble for 3-4 minutes. Serve warm drizzled over the bread pudding. Makes 6-8 servings.
Wine recommendation: An aged Sauternes, with its deep honeyed, caramel flavors, is an excellent match to the creamy pumpkin and caramel sauce. If you don’t have one lying around in the cellar, try the Chateau Villefranche 2005 Sauternes, a younger vintage that gives the pudding a bright and refreshing finish.
Sponsored by Terlato Family Vineyards http://www.TerlatoVineyards.com.