Sunday, November 10, 2013

Anything pumpkin

Right after Halloween, we begin baking off pumpkins for puree to hold us through the winter in dog food, muffins, soups, and breads.  Because we usually put up a couple dozen quarts of pureed pumpkin, baking them is not only easier than trying to peel and dice, but also fills the house with the smell of fall. When the kids were younger, we used to save the seeds, wash them carefully and then dress them with a spritz of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt and roast them in the oven alongside the fruit.  But as kids left home, and we ended up with mountains of uneaten pumpkin seeds, we‘ve abandoned the practice. Instead, the seeds go outside, along with the soggy skins, to the compost pile.  The jays have discovered this new dining establishment and claimed it as their own.  They fly in, bolts of blue against the dun of fall fields, and settle on the edge of the bale, peering in like children surveying a swimming pool.  Although there are often three or four inside scavenging the fruit and veggie parings and gobbling pumpkin seeds, there is always one standing guard, shouting ”Thief! Thief” whenever we or the dogs come into the backyard. 
Catching a jay in flight is difficult so this picture is borrowed from Nature Notes
At this time of year, we’re normally wading in pumpkins.  We grow four varieties: Long Pie, Howden, Sugar Pie, and Casper, which I started growing a few years ago when my friend and colleague Gail Roy said how mu
ch she loves them.   I love carrying a perfect ghostly white pumpkin in to her every fall.
The Long Pies are an old New England variety that we order through Fedco Seeds here in Maine and they look more like overgrown zucchinis than a pumpkin. They are long and blimp-shaped and we pick them while they are still green. That’s part of the joy as they slowly ripen in a corner of the kitchen and I get to have fresh pumpkin throughout the winter.  The Howdens are a largest pumpkin, typical jack o’ lantern style, but they really are multipurpose in that they have a thick wall and yield a lot of pumpkin.   That also means it takes patience and determination to carve them into Halloween decorations, but they hold up well.  Sugar Pies are just what they sound like: smallish round pumpkins with just the right amount of fruit for a pumpkin pie, and they yield a bit sweeter and more substantial pulp than others.
Baked pumpkin
I love pumpkin and we usually have a lot of them for our own use and to give away, but this year the pumpkin crop was slim, as was the winter squash crop, but that’s another story.  The only ones that did well were the Long Pies and for that I am grateful as they are my favorites. Spring was long, chilly, and rainy, which meant the plants were slow to grow, slow to flower, and even slower to set and ripen fruit.  Part of the problem was that as the plants blossomed, it rained, which meant that not only were the bees not out and about, but the trumpety blossoms were closed tight in slim orange cylinders.  We bought a few from other farmers who had better luck than we did, the mounds of orange fruit beckoning us like beacons from the roadside, and we have baked those up too, carefully packing the cooking flesh into two-cup bags and stowing them in the freezer which is near bursting at the seams.
November begins the slide into winter.  The days are shorter.  We pull the curtains closed against the chill and darkness as the purpled dusk settles in, the setting sun a dull ember. 
For a week the wind has carried the scent of snow as it pushed charcoal clouds eastward, and most days there are few flurries swirling in the crisp air.  We burrow under quilts and afghans beside a spitting fire and dream of heartier meals.  These first few weeks are a respite between the hurry of harvest and the beginning of holiday preparations.  Food has a big role in our Thanksgiving and Christmas plans, and I love anything pumpkin.
Since we discovered the New England Long Pie pumpkin, whose seeds we get from Fedco Seeds, right here in Maine, or High Mowing Seeds in Vermont, it has become my pumpkin of choice for everything except jack o’ lanterns.  That’s only because it’s hard to carve a face into an overgrown zucchini.  But if you want a pumpkin for pie, or muffins, or cookies, or soup, or, well, almost anything pumpkin, this is it. Fedco notes that this is probably the same variety as the Nantucket Pie pumpkin, but that makes little difference to me.  What does is that the Long Pie has amazing yields and a flavor and texture that just can’t be beat – real pumpkin.  And, it is picked green and slowly ripens on the kitchen counter or as in our case, stacked in the corner of the kitchen, slowly turning from the deep green to a dull orange.  We’ve had fresh pumpkin from this great variety as late as early April. It saves freezer space and gives us that perfect fresh pumpkin taste.

One of the first dishes we make with pumpkin is Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good.  I’d love to claim this, but I can’t; it came from an NPR show I heard while driving home one afternoon from school.   Full credit goes to Dorrie Greenspan, but as she suggested, I’ve played with it.   Here it is, with variations, and although this recipe is marked as providing two generous servings, we’ve found it goes much farther.

Pumpkin Stuffed With Everything Good
1 pumpkin, about 3 pounds (I don't recommend the Long Pie)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 pound stale bread, thinly sliced and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1/4 pound cheese, such as Gruyere, Emmenthal, cheddar, or a combination (I like this best), cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2–4 garlic cloves (to taste), split and coarsely chopped
4 strips bacon, cooked until crisp, drained, and chopped or a half pound bulk Italian sausage, cooked
About 1/4 cup snipped fresh chives or sliced scallions
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
About 1/3 cup heavy cream
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone parchment, or use a Dutch oven with a diameter that's just a tiny bit larger than your pumpkin. If you bake the pumpkin in a casserole, it will keep its shape, but it might stick to the casserole, so you'll have to serve it from the pot — which is an appealingly homey way to serve it. If you bake it on a baking sheet, you can present it freestanding, but maneuvering a heavy stuffed pumpkin with a softened shell isn't so easy. However, since I love the way the unencumbered pumpkin looks in the center of the table, I've always taken my chances with the baked-on-a-sheet method, and so far, I've been lucky.
Using a very sturdy knife — and caution — cut a cap out of the top of the pumpkin (think Halloween jack-o'-lantern). It's easiest to work your knife around the top of the pumpkin at a 45-degree angle. You want to cut off enough of the top to make it easy for you to work inside the pumpkin. Clear away the seeds and strings from the cap and from inside the pumpkin. Season the inside of the pumpkin generously with salt and pepper, and put it on the baking sheet or in the pot. Toss the bread, cheese, garlic, bacon, and herbs together in a bowl. Season with pepper — you probably have enough salt from the bacon and cheese, but taste to be sure — and pack the mix into the pumpkin. The pumpkin should be well filled — you might have a little too much filling, or you might need to add to it. Stir the cream with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper and pour it into the pumpkin. Again, you might have too much or too little — you don't want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want them nicely moistened. (But it's hard to go wrong here.)
Put the cap in place and bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours — check after 90 minutes — or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbling and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. Because the pumpkin will have exuded liquid, I like to remove the cap during the last 20 minutes or so, so that the liquid can bake away and the top of the stuffing can brown a little.
When the pumpkin is ready, carefully, very carefully — it's heavy, hot, and wobbly — bring it to the table or transfer it to a platter that you'll bring to the table.
You have choices for serving: you can cut wedges of the pumpkin and filling; you can spoon out portions of the filling, making sure to get a generous amount of pumpkin into the spoonful; or you can dig into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pull the pumpkin meat into the filling, and then mix everything up. I'm a fan of the pull-and-mix option. Served in hearty portions followed by a salad, the pumpkin is a perfect cold-weather main course; served in generous spoonfuls or wedges, it's just right alongside the Thanksgiving turkey, but it is also hearty enough as meal on its own with a salad of pears, apples and greens on the side.

I’m also big on soup, and I have several that include pumpkin, but my favorite is a Pumpkin Curry Soup, and again, I can’t remember where this recipe came from, I just know it is terrific. 

Pumpkin Curry Soup
2 cups cooked pumpkin                                             2/3 cups light cream (or skim evaporated milk) 
3 Tbsps. minced onion                                                                  
2 Tbsps. unsalted butter                                                        Pepper (white is best) to taste
3 cups good chicken stock                                          1/8 tsp. ground or grate nutmeg
1 cup extra sharp cheddar, shredded                                    ½ tsp. curry powder

Sauté the minced onion in one tablespoon of butter. In a blender or food processor, carefully puree one cup pumpkin with one cup of the stock.  Then in a stock pot, blend in remaining stock and pumpkin using a whisk to combine, and add in cheese and cream, and stir to blend.  Heat, stirring constantly until cheese is melted, then add in pepper, nutmeg and curry.  This is great served along with warm fresh crusty bread as a meal on its own or in a cup at the beginning of Thanksgiving dinner.
I also like pumpkin in the morning and have recipes for pumpkin waffles and pancakes, but I really like this terrific recipe that has pumpkin, maple, and oatmeal all in one portable muffin.
Pumpkin Maple Oat Muffins
1/2 cup all-purpose flour                                             ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup whole wheat flour                                          ½ teaspoon ground or grated nutmeg
1/2 cup white sugar                                                    1 ¼ cups pureed pumpkin
1 teaspoon salt                                                                        ½ cup milk
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice                                                2 eggs, well beaten
3/4 teaspoon baking powder                                                ¼ cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda                                          3/4 cup quick-cooking rolled oats

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).  Line a six-muffin tin with cupcake baking papers
Whisk all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, sugar, salt, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a large bowl until thoroughly combined. Stir pumpkin puree, milk, eggs, and maple syrup into the dry ingredients until batter is smooth; fold oats into batter. Sometimes I stir in a ¼ cup of raisins, butterscotch chips or chocolate chips before baking, for extra decadence. Scoop batter into prepared muffin cups, filling them to the top.  Bake in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean, 20 to 30 minutes; set aside to cool 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I think of pumpkin pie, which I dearly love.  Making pumpkin pie seems more complicated than it really is, and the difference makes the extra labor well worth it.  Last year I helped Lindsay Burden and Jessica Lahey make their first pumpkin pies from scratch, over the internet, which was a first for me, but shows just how easy it is.

Homemade Pumpkin Pie
One pie crust big enough to line a 9-inch pie plate.  If you don’t know how to make pie crust, that’s really best for another time, but you can go to the King Arthur Flour page where there are great directions, or the prepared crusts available in the refrigerator sections of the most groceries are passable.  The filling is really what makes the pie.
2 cups cooked, pureed or canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 ½ cups evaporated milk (or skim evaporated milk or rich cream – your choice)
2 Tbsps. dark molasses
¼ cup dark brown sugar
½ c. white sugar
½ tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. ginger
¼ tsp. mace (or ground nutmeg)
1/8 tsp. ground clove
2 well beaten eggs

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Using an electric mixer, combine the wet ingredients in a large bowl, beating until smooth, then add in dark sugar and white sugar, salt, and spices until very well blended and smooth.
Pour mixture into the pie shell.  Bake 15 minutes at, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake for 45 minutes or until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.  Cool slightly or completely, and serve topped with sweetened whipped cream.

This picture is Jessica Lahey's first pumpkin pie, last year
The trick to the great taste of this pie is two-fold.  First, do not use a premixed pumpkin pie spice as it just doesn’t have the lovely flavor of mixing in the spices yourself.  And second, mace.  Mace is an old spice that seems to have fallen out of favor, but I am single-handedly trying to resurrect it.  It comes from the same exotic Spice Island tree as nutmeg; in fact, from the same fruit, which is sun-dried and separated.  The mace comes from the outer husk, which is dried and ground, while the nutmeg is grated from the hard inner core.  The flavor of mace is very similar to nutmeg, but a bit deeper and richer.

Now the snow has begun falling, veiling the distant hills, frosting the compost bin, and settling like lace on the lawn. 

Hannah is asleep in her chair while Monty chews his bone.  Outside the temperature dips but the house is warm and fragrant with the aromas of stewing chicken, pumpkin baking in the oven and the last of the carrots that Bruce is blanching and tucking into the freezer.  Forecasters call for as much as six inches, which we will add to the tally we keep on the calendar. We settle in to quilting and writing, and football games, the routine that will mark our days as we move into winter.

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