The Mystery of the Pumpkin


Photo courtesy of julianmeade opens in a new tab via Flickr opens in a new tabI lived in Alaska for a few years, where almost everything is a lot bigger than Texas. The sight of 800 pound (and heavier) pumpkins at the State Fair in Palmer is simply astonishing. Kitschy postcards of pumpkins the size of tool sheds date back to the 1950s, at least, and show up yearly in local newspapers. How in the world, I wondered, is it possible for a pumpkin to attain the heft of a horse? As I was soon to learn, cool weather crops such as pumpkins and parsnips attain gigantic girth in the long daylight hours of the growing season at such high latitudes. In the more temperate latitudes of Tennessee, where I also lived, farmers were justifiably proud of their 180 pound pumpkins, and even they were the very devil to move out of the field without the help of a mule or a sturdy field hand with a wheelbarrow.For a workaday squash, the pumpkin has found its way into numerous literary tradition and mass media treatments over the last two centuries. For example, the Great Pumpkin embodied the inexplicable hopes of cartoonist Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters as Halloween approached. A benign, all-powerful vegetable being, or so thought Linus, the Great Pumpkin never actually made an appearance, leaving us all to wonder at the mysterious squash’s actual powers and intentions. The idea of pumpkin carols, as Linus hoped his friends would sing, always appealed to me. Who does not want to glorify in song the sight of a field of large pumpkins after the rest of the harvest is in, glowing a soft, dusty orange among the fading browns and golds of surrounding trees and grasses?Followers of Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana-based No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series may recall that In the Company of Cheerful Ladies the main protagonist, Precious Ramatse, discovers a fine pumpkin on her front porch one morning. As her fans know, the traditionally-built Precious is fond of her bush tea and her pumpkin, a regular staple food in Botswanan culture. Precious spends considerable effort trying to resolve the mystery of who would leave such a nice pumpkin on her porch without stopping in to declare its origin. Although the mystery of the pumpkin benefactor is never solved, I find this a kinder, gentler literary treatment of the pumpkin than that of the nineteenth century Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where a pumpkin replaces the head of the terrifying headless horseman. We never learn how or why the pumpkin was chosen to replace the head, but we’re unsettled when it shows up atop the empty shoulders of the spooky creature.

The mysterious pumpkin is truly one of the most seasonal vegetables in our modern public consciousness and our American culture long ago designated the pumpkin a Halloween icon. It seems that 50% of the annual pumpkin crop is diverted for use as Jack-o-lanterns for the spookiest day of the year. If you didn’t catch it earlier in the month, James Parker’s delightful post on how to carve the perfect Halloween pumpkin opens in a new tab is worth reviewing for ideas on how to achieve the handsomest Jack on your block.Yet the pumpkin, which comes in several sizes and varieties, provides important nutrition, including plenty of protein and Vitamin A, in the form of its dried seeds and firm flesh. Along with the usual suspects this time of year—pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread—my absolute favorite pumpkin dish is a savory Curried Pumpkin Soup. Two other savory runners up are Pepita Encrusted Redfish and Enchiladas with Pipian (pumpkin seed) Sauce, which you can find in Interior Mexican restaurants.I typically invite a mob of people to dinner at my house in the fall and plan the meal around pumpkin soup. This year I made individual, savory spinach cakes and a wild rice, butternut squash and shitake and morel mushroom side dish to provide substantial accompaniments. A fluffy green salad completed the table. No one leaves hungry and both vegetarian and vegan, as well as gluten-sensitive, folks are accommodated.Does this menu sound like a lot of work? I fed 20 people and spent less than two hours in the kitchen. You’ll notice the shortcuts below. I also use a lot of 365-brand products to keep the costs down, especially on organic items.

Photo courtesy of Ms. Glaze opens in a new tab via Flickr opens in a new tabCurried Pumpkin Soup: 2 hours totalServes 20 (6 oz. cups) or 10 (12 oz. bowls)

  • 1  large onion

  • 6  cloves peeled garlic

  • 2  TBs coconut oil

  • 1 or 2 medium sized sweet potatoes

  • 1  32 oz. container organic Vegetable or Mushroom Stock

  • 1  12 oz. can organic Pumpkin

  • 2  32 oz. containers Imagine Butternut Squash Soup

  • 2 to 3  TBs fresh mild curry powder

  • 1  12 oz. can lite Coconut Milk

  • 2  TBs apple cider vinegar

Optional garnish:

  • Half-n-half or plain yogurt and water (2:1 ratio) for a finishing swirl

  • Spicy pumpkin seeds (or plain)

Dice onion and garlic and sauté in coconut oil on medium heat until transparent. Add vegetable or mushroom stock, then add cubed sweet potato; cook on medium heat for 20 minutes until soft. Reduce heat to medium low, add canned pumpkin and stir into broth. Add both containers of Butternut Squash soup, along with curry powder. Cover and let flavors blend on low heat for 30 to 45 minutes. Thirty minutes prior to serving, add lite coconut milk, continuing to cook on low heat. Do not overheat as coconut milk can curdle at higher temperatures. Ten minutes prior to serving, add apple cider vinegar and adjust seasoning with additional curry powder, if needed, and salt and pepper. A small swirl of cream or liquid yogurt makes for a pretty presentation once the soup is in a tureen or bowl. Sprinkle a few pumpkin seeds on top. Vegan guests will appreciate a spicy pumpkin seed garnish.Spinach Cakes: 45 minutes total12 cakes:

  • 16    oz. frozen chopped organic spinach

  • 3  extra-large organic eggs

  • ½  cup organic cottage cheese

  • 4    oz. shredded parmesan or Three-Cheese Blend

  • 2    cloves chopped garlic

  • 8  large basil leaves, chopped

  • 3    TBs pine nuts (pumpkin seeds are a good substitute)

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • Olive oil for muffin pan

  • ½  oz. shredded parmesan for topping

Preheat oven to 400°F. Place frozen spinach in a large bowl for 15 minutes of thawing at room temperature. Break up any large clumps at the end of that time. Crack eggs and whisk. Slowly add in cottage cheese, parmesan, and finely diced garlic. Chop basil and add with pine nuts (or pumpkin seeds). Add liquid mixture to spinach and mix thoroughly. Add a few shakes of salt and twists of the pepper grinder. Use a 12-count muffin pan and spray with olive oil (or wipe cups with olive oil). Fill each cup with mixture and add a sprinkle of parmesan atop each portion of mixture. Place tray in 400 degree oven and bake for 25 to 35 minutes, or until spinach cakes are firm to touch with a spoon. Let muffin pan cool for 10 minutes on cooling rack before removing cakes to a plate. Loosen sides gently with a table knife. *Bonus: Cakes freeze well for use in brown bag lunches.

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