Fall Harvest Feature—Pumpkins & Squash
Source: Nancy Teton Gordon
It has been said that pumpkins remind us of happy times—often bringing out the best in those who see them. We couldn’t agree more. One of the most-welcome signs of fall is the arrival of pumpkins and other squash at farmers’ markets and on doorsteps and in windows. Squashes are truly an American crop, along with corn, cranberries, and bell peppers, and the name “squash” derives from the Narragansett “askutasquash,” literally "a green thing eaten raw.” And, though they are often considered to be vegetables, squashes are actually the fruit of plants of the gourd family. They have also captivated the interest of people all over the world as new varieties are being cultivated worldwide for consumption and décor. And, please don’t discount some of the odder-looking varieties as many of them are fabulous for cooking!
While there are both summer and winter varieties, this season’s focus is on the winter squash, which are allowed to mature until their flesh is thick and their shells are hard—making them hardier with a longer shelf life…ideal for the colder season.
Pumpkins are perhaps the best known variety of squash, but there is a virtual rainbow from which to choose—some quite familiar to us and some less so! Now is a great season to explore them.
Hard-shelled and winter varieties include the Australian Blue, banana, buttercup, butternut, Hubbard, calabaza, acorn, spaghetti squash, and the Delicata squash, which is becoming increasingly popular at upscale restaurants for its delicate and sweet-potato-like flavor. One of the more unusual squashes is the Turban. While it’s quite decorative with white and red to orange coloration, it has a fairly bland flavor and is great to use scooped out as a soup tureen or as a centerpiece.
Preparation and Cooking
It has been said that close to 99 percent of all pumpkins are sold for decoration—truly a nutritional loss as this fruit boasts loads of vitamin A, potassium, and fiber. Most cooks limit their pumpkin use to pies and custards, but this “king of squashes” can give a beta-carotene boost to savory dishes from soups and stews to pasta. Our recipe section has more than 200 delectable and healthy ways to prepare squash and pumpkin, ranging from the simple to the exotic. The humble-looking yet sweet Hubbard squash is wonderful simply baked with brown sugar. We also recommend Butternut Squash with Veggies and Black Beans, Puréed Apple and Squash, Butternut Squash Stew in Bread Bowls, Spaghetti Squash with Parsley and Garlic and Impossible Pumpkin Pie, for a gourmet variation on the fall holiday classic.
Unless otherwise specified,, use a chef’s knife to cut squash into halves or wedges and then use a large metal spoon to remove the seeds and strings before peeling. Pumpkin seeds lend themselves well to roasting. Simply clean and toast to use as a snack, ingredient, or garnish. (And, the answer to the age-old question is that the toasting does make the hulls crisp and edible—no need to fumble with trying to open them to eat!)
Selection and Storage
Here are a few key things to keep in mind when selecting and storing squash, which will vary somewhat if you are intending to carve and display them as the main difference is in the variety you select.
- The best cooking pumpkins are smaller and sweeter, ranging from orange to brown in color, and they are well formed and mature.
- Pumpkins for jack-o’-lanterns should be clean and free of spots with deep, rich color unless you are selecting one of the white varieties, which should have little or no variation in color. They should have a hard rind and feel heavy for their size and pressing your fingernail to the side of a good pumpkin should leave little or no mark.
- Winter squash and pumpkins that have spent more time on the vine and have fully cured or ripened often have greater storage potential and are less prone to rot, so often those at the farmers’ market are the best picks.
- Cut winter squashes may be kept in the refrigerator for about a week while whole winter squash may be kept for months if properly stored in a cool (50º to 70ºF), dry place out of direct sunlight before and after carving.
- You can freeze pumpkin in either fully cooked, whole chunks or store it as a purée. Excess moisture should be removed after defrosting and before use. Roasted seeds can also be frozen in airtight containers for later use. Pumpkin leather makes a natural, healthy treat when prepared with sugar and spices or you can reconstitute the leather for use in pies.
Carving pumpkins is festive and always promises to be fun…but there’s no need to limit your artistry to a classic orange pumpkin. For a change, other squash will lend themselves to carving and décor just as well. Try carving acorn squash instead and use them as hanging luminaria. Carving has never been easier since adults and children can now select from a broad range of stencils and carving tools on the market to yield spectacular results. Many are even optimized for safe use by the very young so almost everyone can participate. Your family’s decorating efforts don’t need to be limited to carving, either! Try painting pumpkins and squash using painter’s tape along with craft paint, antiquing stain, and water-based varnish. Decorative dried gourds can be used all year…and they are often used as part of fall displays with dried corn and greens both inside and outside the home.
Whether you’re going to use them for décor or for a special addition to seasonal menus, enjoy the season and have fun exploring the markets and discovering new squash favorites!