The Pumpkin and Friends
The pumpkin: a harbinger of happy times and one of the most welcome signs of fall. Pumpkins appear stacked up and rolling in various directions at farm stands, or may debut along with other squash at farmers’ markets. And, they will always mark the season's spookiest holiday, Halloween disguised grimaced or gawking on doorsteps across the country.
Along with corn, cranberries and bell peppers, pumpkin and other squashes are truly an American crop. The name “squash” derives from the Narragansett “askutasquash,” literally "a green thing eaten raw.” Though they are often considered to be vegetables, squashes are actually the fruit of plants of the gourd family. They have captivated the interest of people all over the world as new varieties are cultivated for consumption and décor. Don't discount the odd-looking varieties—many of them are fabulous for cooking!
While there are both summer and winter squash 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, but there is a virtual rainbow of squash from which to choose—some quite familiar to us and some less so!
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 a centerpiece.
Preparation and Cooking
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.
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.
- 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 those at the farmers’ market are often 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.