Falling for Pumpkin

More than pies, lattes and jack o’ lanterns.

by Tracey L. Anderson

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Ah, pumpkins, the classic symbol of autumn. These bright orange fruits can be found at farmers’ markets, grocery stores and u-pick farms. But many of us don’t know how to savour them beyond baking a Thanksgiving pie, spicing a latté or carving a jack-o’-lantern.

Picking the Perfect Pumpkin
For carving or decorating the front porch or dining table, Tam Andersen recommends Prize Winner, Atlantic Giant or Gargoyle. “The farm won Best Looking Pumpkin in the Smoky Lake Pumpkin Weigh-Off one year with a Prize Winner,” says Tam. An Atlantic Giant holds the world record for the heaviest pumpkin at over 1,000 kilograms. Gargoyle is hard shelled and keeps for months. “Unlike field pumpkins, which are bred for flavour, these pumpkins have been cultivated for size. For all intents and purposes, they are inedible,” says Tam.

  • Choose a pumpkin without soft spots, mould, cuts or scrapes.
  • A broken stem can lead to rotting, so always choose a pumpkin with an intact, solidly attached stem.
  • Keep the pumpkin indoors at a cool 15°C.
  • Don’t store pumpkins on a concrete floor; condensation can cause soft rot and the bottom can fall out.

If you’re buying from the grocery store remember that the ones in parking lot bins may have been exposed to rain or frost. If possible, select one on display in the store.

Pumpkin Fun at the Farm
Tam Andersen describes her role at Prairie Gardens as the Director of Fun. Some of the pumpkin fun you can find there includes the Haunted Pumpkin Festival, which starts September 24 and runs every weekend in October, including Thanksgiving Monday. Don’t miss the pumpkin cannon that hurtles pumpkins high into the air to splat into bits as they crash to the ground. For more details, visit prairiegardens.org.

Tam Andersen, the owner of Prairie Gardens and Adventure Farm in Bon Accord, has been growing pumpkins for many years. She loves them “in all their wonderful, lumpy bumpy shapes, sizes and colours,” and believes they are one of the most under-utilized foods from the garden.

The 12-acre pumpkin patch at Prairie Gardens produces over 50 varieties, mostly short-season types that grow from seed to maturity in about 100 days. Harvest usually starts around mid-September. In a successful year, the farm grows a scale-tipping 225,000 kilograms of pumpkins.

Pumpkins vary from shades of red, tan, pink, white and blue. Their skins can be smooth, creased, wrinkled, warty, bumpy or even striped. No matter what they look like though, pumpkins provide unlimited pleasures for your palate. They may be autumn favourites, but they can be enjoyed all year if stored well or frozen.

Each pumpkin variety is best suited to specific tasks and dishes; those suitable for eating are not good for carving or decorating and vice versa. “Generally, the heaviest pumpkins for their size are the best culinary types, but they each have special qualities,” says Tam.

Pumpkins are extremely versatile, with velvety, smooth textures and flavours that range from rich and earthy, to nutty, to sweet. Aside from pumpkin pie, you could make other desserts such as cakes, loaves, mousse, cheesecake or cookies.

But pumpkins aren’t just for dessert; their textures and flavours lend themselves well to savoury dishes too. “We have used pumpkins in every course of the meal at Prairie Gardens,” says Tam. Nearly any cooking method works—baked, boiled, roasted or fried. Or try them raw as a crudité, mixed into a smoothie or pickled.

Since pumpkins are part of the squash (cucurbita) family, use as you would your favourite squash, such as acorn or butternut. Try pumpkin on a pizza, in ravioli, gnocchi or risotto, in chili or curry, in soups and chowder, or in vegetarian dishes such as veggie burgers or grilled cheese sandwiches. You can also serve pumpkin as a side dish: roasted with sea salt and rosemary, or as pumpkin fries, which Tam says taste “like sweet potato fries, only better!”

If you’re starting with a whole pumpkin, Tam suggests two cooking methods. Cut the pumpkin in half. Clean out the stringy flesh and seeds. Roast the pieces cut-side down in a pan at 350°F for about an hour or until the flesh is tender. Or, roast the pumpkin whole. Pierce the skin so that it doesn’t explode. Place it in the coals of a fire. When it’s cooked (in about an hour), split it in half, remove the guts and peel off the burned skin.

The Grey Ghost, a Japanese pumpkin with a grey-blue rind (yes, blue!) and deep orange flesh, is Andersen’s favourite. It keeps well and improves with age; it’s actually at its best after two to five months. The sweet earthy taste, similar to a sweet potato, makes this variety one of “the best cooking pumpkins because of the thick meat and superior flavour.” It pairs well with anise, chili powder, cumin, rosemary and tarragon. Because of its unique colouring, Tam suggests serving Grey Ghost roasted or grilled with the skin on. She enjoys it fire-roasted and served with chimichurri. Another blue-hued pumpkin is the Jarrahdale Australian Blue, aromatic, mild and sweet, best in curries, stews and soups.

Lumina White tastes mild, sweet and fruity; try it in waffles, tarts and flans. Cannonball Pie—more traditional looking, with an orange rind—is popular for pies, but also for cheesecake or a pumpkin apple crisp.

Suggested pairings include pecans, maple syrup, citrus, vanilla and chocolate.

Tracey’s Pumpkin Pancakes

Pumpkin isn’t just tasty and versatile, it’s good for you. One cup has 30 calories. It’s rich in antioxidants, fibre and vitamins A, C and E. The seeds are cholesterol free and good for the brain because they contain omega-3 fatty acids. One cup of dried, shelled seeds has 721 calories, 30 g protein and 110 per cent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of iron.

2 c flour
½ c brown sugar
2 t baking powder
2 t baking soda
¼ t salt
1 t cinnamon
½ t nutmeg
½ t allspice
½ t ginger
1 c milk, room temperature
1 c pumpkin purée
2 eggs with yolks and whites separated
½ c applesauce, room temperature
oil for the pan

Prepare the frying pan with oil or butter. Heat on medium until hot.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, pumpkin, egg yolks and applesauce.

Mix wet ingredients (except egg whites) into dry ingredients just until moistened. Beat the egg whites until firm. Gently fold egg whites into batter.

Turn the heat on the pan to low. Ladle in the batter. Use 2 T or more per pancake. Cook until the bottom is light brown. Flip and cook for 1 to 2 more minutes. Serves 8.

Tracey L. Anderson is a writer, editor and poet from Edmonton. She first learned to love pumpkin during her overseas travels. Mornings are her favourite time to savour its distinct flavours because pumpkin pancakes taste like pie for breakfast

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