Than Be Crowded On A Velvet Cushion
-Henry David Thoreau
Because I have a six year-old daughter, Halloween is a big deal in our house. While Hope, my daughter, has gone “trick-or-treating” (I use the quotation marks because for her first year or two, we dressed her up in a costume and took her to be photographed by adoring grandparents) every year of her existence, only two years ago did she finally, really, get to wander a neighborhood after dark and beg for candy. And now that she is in first grade and it’s an even bigger deal.
Because of a variety of reasons, our home has become inundated with pumpkins. Hope’s after school care class went to a pumpkin patch about awhile ago and every kid brought home a pumpkin. Fortunately, Hope brought home a sugar pumpkin, although I don’t know whether it was her choice or that was the pumpkin she was given. Additionally, our CSA has had pumpkins for two or three weeks. Finally, Hope’s teacher used Halloween as an occasion to teach math skills and as a result asked each kid to bring in a pumpkin so they could do something called “pumpkin math.” We were under strict instruction to bring in a whole pumpkin, not carved into a jack-o-lantern and not too big for the kids to carry themselves. After class was done with pumpkin cipherin’, we got back our gourds.
The result of all this activity a lot of pumpkins. I had to do something with all those pumpkins as I hate to waste them and Hope kept demanding that we do something with them. I have learned that roast pumpkin is one of the most useful things to have around a well-stocked kitchen. Not only is it much more versatile than baked goods and sweets; I have learned that if you treat the pumpkin right, it will return to you almost 100% edible goodness.
There are a few different things you can do with a raw sugar pumpkin. By the way, big pumpkins, the kind used to make jack-o-lanterns can actually work this same way, but they won’t be as sweet and, depending on your final recipe, you may need to adjust the amount of sugar you add. One thing you cannot do is eat a jack-o-lantern you carved and left on your doorstep. Once you are finished with your jack-o-lantern, the only really useful thing you can do with it is compost it.
While the possible recipes for cooked pumpkin are too numerous to mention, your options in getting the pumpkin to a state you will find edible are pretty limited. You can roast them or you can steam them. I’ve never tried steaming them, although I hear it works well enough. However, given the amount of pumpkin I am dealing with, I wanted simplicity more than almost anything. And roasting is as simple as you can get.
In my experience, there are two ways of roasting a pumpkin: whole or in pieces. They each have their benefits but I usually go with whole. As far as pieces go, the way you do this is to use your biggest, sturdiest chef’s knife and cut the top off the pumpkin as if you were making a jack-o-lantern. Scoop out the insides (seeds and pulp) cut the pumpkin into large-ish sized pieces, cut off the outer skin however you can and roast them, lightly oiled if you like, on a baking sheet in a moderate oven until the pieces are soft enough to be pierced with a fork. Take your pieces and get them baby food smooth with the aid of a food processor (or, if you’re a masochist, a food mill) strain them and, voila, you have pumpkin puree.
The advantages to doing it this way are, as I see them, twofold. First, dry roasting them tends to drive off much of the water in the pumpkin. This concentrates the flavor of the pumpkin and also helps make sure that you won’t have watery pumpkin pie or loose pumpkin cookie batter, if those are the things you decide to do with your cooked pumpkin. The other advantage is that the pumpkin seeds are still viable if you’d like to try and grow your own for next year. I learned this on accident a few years ago when I threw a bunch of pumpkin “guts” in my garden thinking they’d compost over the winter. Imagine my surprise the following spring when I found pumpkins growing in there but completely forgetting that I’d planted them. I had initially thought that I had some weird mutant cucumber plant volunteering in that space (pumpkin and cucumber leaves look very similar) and it was only when the blossoms began fruiting that I realized what had happened.
Anyway, the downside to roasting your pumpkin in pieces is that you require a very sharp, sturdy knife, the pumpkin is hard to cut and you have to do a lot more work. Also, pumpkin butchery can lead to serious injury if your knife isn't really sharp and you aren't really good with it.
Which is why I have learned to roast them whole. While you will kill the pumpkins seeds in the process and you have to take some extra steps to get rid of excess water, those things are a small price to pay in exchange for skipping the dangerous knife work.
The most important thing about roasting a whole pumpkin is to make sure you put some holes in it to allow steam to escape. I cannot stress this enough. Failure to do this will lead to an exploded pumpkin and that is no good. So, take a cooking fork (the kid with two sturdy tines) and poke eight or ten holes around the top of the pumpkin. Make sure the holes go all the way to the hollow center of the pumpkin. If you don’t have a fork long or sturdy enough to poke the holes, use a strong, sharp knife and cut six or eight slits around the top of the pumpkin. Don’t connect the slits; you just want to create a way for the steam to vent.
Now, put the pumpkin into a heated (let’s say 325° Fahrenheit, shall we?) oven. You will want to either put the pumpkin on a rimmed sheet or put it right on the oven rack with something underneath the catch any liquid that comes out of the pumpkin. Now leave it. Depending on the size of your pumpkin, it could be done in 45 minutes but it could take much longer. The last pumpkin I roasted took about an hour. The way to test for doneness is to insert a fork (again, a really long one) or knife into the pumpkin. When it goes in easily enough for you to realize that the pumpkin is very soft, it’s finished. Turn off the oven and let everything cool down. You can let the pumpkin cool in the oven or on a counter, as long as it’s on a plate or stays on that rimmed sheet you used when you roasted it.
When it’s completely cool (which will take awhile), you’re ready to process. The way I do it is to simply start tearing the pumpkin apart with your hands. Take off the stem and throw it away. Pull the pumpkin apart and scoop out the seeds and pulp. Set those side for another use like roasted pumpkin seeds. The stringy fibrous stuff is not much good for anything. Start breaking the pumpkin into chunks. If your pumpkin is roasted well enough, you won’t even need a knife for this, although a large spoon is helpful in removing the seeds. After the pumpkin is broken into chunks, peel the skin off or scrape the pumpkin from the skin using your hands or a spoon.
As you finish a piece of pumpkin, drop it into your food processor. When you have finished cleaning and peeling the entire pumpkin, blitz the bejesus out of it in your food processor. You want to get it really smooth. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl a couple of times to make sure you get it as smooth as can be.
At this point you have pureed pumpkin as good as any canned pumpkin you will find in the store and you can substitute what you’ve just made for canned pumpkin in any recipe. By the way, this is NOT pumpkin pie filling. “Pumpkin pie filling” has pumpkin processed in a similar fashion, but it also has sugar, spices and, likely, dairy and/or eggs. You can make pumpkin pie with your fresh-processed pumpkin, but you will need a recipe that uses pumpkin and not canned pie filling.
I know what you’re thinking. You are wondering about that part about excess water that we got rid of using the method where we roasted in pieces, aren’t you? Well, the way you deal with the excess water in this pumpkin is also pretty easy. All you need is a fine-mesh strainer and a bowl over which to place it. Dump the pumpkin into the strainer and place the strainer over the bowl. Just let it set there for a few hours. I usually do this on the countertop, but it would probably be smarter to do it in the fridge just to make sure you don’t get any icky bacteria. After it’s strained for awhile, you will see a fairly decent amount of orange water in the bowl below. Throw this away. Your pumpkin is now ready for use.
If you don’t need the pumpkin immediately, put it in a freezer bag (one “regular-sized” sugar pumpkin usually fills up a one quart freezer bag in my experience) and throw it in the freezer. It will keep and you can use it for Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.
I know I’ve written a lot of steps here and I’m sorry. But please don’t be put off by my wordiness. I promise you that this is an easy way to use pumpkin and that when your kid starts bringing home pumpkins and demands that they be used rather than thrown away, you will be glad you know how to do this.
Pumpkin Soup With Thai Flavors
As I said before, my favorite way to use pumpkin is not in pies or cookies. My favorite is pumpkin soup, especially pumpkin soup with Thai flavors. I have no idea whether this is anything close to authentic (although I suspect it isn't), but I can tell you it’s tasty and easy and you can use the pumpkin you just processed or, if you don’t have any, use canned pumpkin. Like many of my other SKC entries,this isn’t really a recipe so much as a technique and one you can adjust to fit your personal preferences quite easily.
Sauté some finely chopped onion and minced garlic in a bit of olive oil. Just get the onion to be a bit translucent. If you like heat, add it in the form you like. Crushed red pepper is a good choice, but so are chili oil, sriracha sauce and finely chopped chili (Thai bird chili is a good one here). Be careful with how much chili you add because you can’t take it out if it’s too hot. If you have any lemongrass, add one split stalk (leave it in large pieces because you will want to remove it later) and add it too. Add some minced or grated ginger and let everything get nice and aromatic. Now add your pumpkin and stir to combine. Add a can of coconut milk (not “cream of coconut" meant for pina coladas) and squeeze in a couple or three limes. Stir to combine. Add enough chicken stock to thin it to your desired consistency. Taste the soup and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Let it simmer gently for 10-15 minutes to really extract the flavors of the ginger and lemongrass. Take out the lemongrass stalk and discard. Now you can puree your soup in a blender or with an immersion blender, but this step is totally optional and if you grated the ginger and the garlic and onion are very finely chopped, you won’t notice anything. Still, I enjoy the velvety texture of the soup when it's been pureed to a completely smooth consistency. Serve in bowls and garnish the soup with chopped cilantro, a chiffonade of Thai basil and a couple more lime wedges.
I like pumpkin pie, I really do. But if you try this soup just once, I promise you will yell at your spouse for even thinking of using that last batch of frozen pumpkin for anything so pedestrian as dessert.