At this time of year, it’s easy to give a nod to the coming of fall by putting a pumpkin on the porch, and cooks can get the same boost of seasonal appeal by putting a pumpkin in the oven.
While cooking with pumpkin often conjures up thoughts of pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, the savory side of pumpkin is just as seasonal and even easier to do.
It’s a mystery how pumpkin became associated with sweet treats, since the pumpkin is a squash. Even pumpkin’s closest relatives, like acorn squash and butternut squash, rarely make it to the dessert table.
Using pumpkin like any other fall squash opens the possibilities for roasting it, stuffing it and incorporating it into soups and salads.
Like most hard-shell squashes, pumpkins have to be de-seeded and scooped clean before cooking. Fortunately, they’re rarely as hard to cut as a butternut squash, and can be baked without peeling, since the peel will slide off easily once the pumpkin is cooked.
Some varieties of pumpkin, such as the Hokkaido, actually have edible skin, eliminating the need for any peeling at all. Miniature pumpkins, which are usually sold as “decorative,” also have a tender skin that can be eaten once the pumpkin is cooked.
Miniature pumpkins may be the best-kept cooking secret of the season: they bake quickly, turning a beautiful shiny orange, and can be stuffed with meat, grains or vegetables to make single-serving side or main dishes.
While they have to be seeded, just like their bigger counterparts, they usually have just a spoonful of seeds to remove. Once seeded and cooked, everything but the stem can be eaten.
While few of us think of pumpkins as a local crop, Texas more than holds its own in terms of pumpkin growing. Texas is the fourth-leading pumpkin producer in the United States, with the majority of them grown in the High Plains region east of Lubbock. Not surprisingly, almost all of Texas’ pumpkins are big, weighing in at 15 to 25 pounds (no one expects Texans to go small on anything, even squash), though the smaller pie pumpkins at one local grocery were labeled as grown in Muleshoe.
Those smaller pie pumpkins are the prime varieties for cooking, simply because a 20-pound pumpkin will yield an enormous quantity of food. While it’s fun to be overwhelmed by the sight of a huge jack-o’-lantern, being overwhelmed by the amount of pumpkin to cook and eat could be one of the scarier episodes of Halloween.
A 2- or 3-pound pumpkin produces plenty for a family meal when roasted in the oven, and one miniature pumpkin per person is a serving. Because pumpkins keep well in a cool environment, buying several in October when they are readily available in stores and community pumpkin patches will ensure having one on hand for cooking later. Since few of us have cellars, pumpkins can be stored in the garage or other cool places.