Saturday, November 12, 2011

It's that time again. Pumpkin.


Besides being my favorite diminutive term, it's a tasty plant food. And it comes around only once a year, making it a rare, unicorn-like food, akin to cotton candy and stadium hot dogs. (yes, at one time I ate meat and enjoyed the occasional stadium hot dog). Do yourself a favor this year, and cook your own pumpkin instead of buying that weird orange canned variety for your pie.

The problem with canned pumpkin is that it usually tastes like some kind of squash, covered in nutmeg and ginger. That's perfectly okay, except when your squashes start to blend together, pumpkin tasting like butternut... or worse - pumpkin tasting like sweet potato. Mushy vegetables have the tendency to blend together. This ambivalent flavor and texture can be cured with a little old-fashioned hard work. Cook your pumpkins yourself, then you can get the start-to-finish experience of pumpkin cookery.

How? well, you've never cooked your own pumpkin? Where to start? in the famous words of Lewis Carroll:
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked.

"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

(Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 12)
I'll do exactly that. To begin cooking your pumpkin, choose a couple of pie pumpkins. They're the small ones that look especially cute and small, but not ornamentally small. Usually these fruits (yes, they're a fruit) are not small enough that they would fit in your hand, but are about a 2-pound object. To make any pumpkin recipe, you'll need pumpkin puree, which is what we'll make today. It can be frozen and used in plenty of recipes... I've made pies, rolls, muffins, ice cream, even pancakes with the pumpkin puree I harvest from these guys... just do it quick. You can freeze enough for a year, but the little cuties will only be in your supermarket for about a month. Whatever you do, don't try to make this recipe with a carving pumpkin. The rule is, if it's big enough to carve a face in, it's too big to bake a pie from. Nothing with a face tastes good (for me this is a universal rule, but you can still eat meat if you have mercy on pumpkins).

Okay, lets start by cleaning the pumpkins. Cut them in half.

After you have divided the fruits, scoop out the insides. If you're a fan of pepitas (pumpkin seeds), save the innards in a bowl of water. The water will allow the pumpkin flesh to drop away from the seeds and give you an easier time separating them.

Cut off the stems and discard. If you leave these on for baking, they'll smoke and just be in the way.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and wrap the cleaned halves in foil. You don't need to remove all of the stringy bits, but you do have to take out all the seeds.

Face down, lay the halves on a baking sheet. Be sure the foil covers the fruit completely so they don't burn. Pumpkins have a high sugar content, so any scorching will taste bad later.

Bake for an hour, then test the pumpkins. If you stab them with a fork, they should feel like a soft baked potato. Allow extra time if they are still firm.

After removing your little pumpkin halves from the oven, let them cool enough to handle. This should be at least 10 minutes. Then, grab a spoon and get to work... you'll want to scrape each half of it's flesh, taking care to get everything but the outer skin. Clean them like a baked potato, then discard the skins. The insides will yield enough flesh to make at least 3 cups pumpkin puree per fruit. Three cups is usually enough for one pie.

It helps to make crazy faces and noises during the cleaning process so others are not tempted to eat your pumpkin bounty. Growl if necessary to protect the hoard.

Finally, before using in your recipe - or freezing (pumpkin freezes extremely well and keeps for up to 6 months) puree your pumpkin in a blender or food processor. Most recipes call for a pureed pumpkin consistency, so I would measure it out in Ziploc bags before freezing so you have the right portions. There, all your family and friends will think you're a genius for using fresh pumpkin, plus it will taste better than any canned substitute ever. win-win.

If you like the seeds and want to toast them, turn up your oven to 425 degrees, and start with clean, dry pumpkin seeds. Spread them on a piece of foil and toss with a little olive oil and a generous amount of salt. Add chili powder if you're feeling saucy. Toast for 8 minutes, tossing once, and serve immediately or store in an airtight container.

Best therapy ever. Step 1 - chop up resistant large fruit. Step 2 - bake into oblivion. Step 3 - beat to a pulp in a blender and then freeze and forget it. Perfect stress reliever.

Pie recipe to follow. Namaste.

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