Pumpkin Prowess

How to Pick the Perfect Pumpkin; Plus Recipes for Toasty Pumpkin Seeds, Protein Packed Pumpkin Toast and a New Spin on Fresh Baked Pumpkin “Pie”

Its October and its finally pumpkin season in the Carolinas!

It is possible that you thought pumpkin season started months ago.  It would be a honest mistake as for many big box stores and markets it did.

In the all too commercial world, the one that operates from “hallmarked” holiday to holiday… you know, those people who try to push us our of our white slacks and into all things pumpkin spice as soon as Labor Day weekend hits…imitation flavored pumpkin lattes and pumpkin-spiced just-about-everything-you-can-think-of  hit the shelves before we even flipped the calendar page from August to September.

Don't rush the seasonBut local produce, grows in its own time. To everything there is a season, don’t you know and we can’t rush it even if we wanted to.

As as we all know, this year, in particular, weather has been wonky, and the change in our usual seasonal climes has affected the growth and harvest of our local produce. As the calendars shifted from late August beach trips to early September Labor Day cookouts we were still slicing and dicing local heirloom tomatoes and Kirby cukes – no one was thinking about eating pumpkin.

As the weather (in theory) cools, apple season comes first; then we start to see leafy greens, sweet potatoes, root veggies and then and only then,  do we start to see the harvest of local squash and pumpkins.

Now with several weeks still to go before Halloween, the holiday that put plump pumpkins on the map, its time to think about how to cook with the real thing, not the artificially spiced powdered wanna be.  Pumpkins, and other winter squash, are delicious veggies, available locally in dozens of varieties, shapes and sizes is as delicious to cook and bake as it is fun to carve.

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Fresh pumpkin, like all other varieties of winter squash, is abundant in this area and makes for some very fine eating not only in pie, but in custards, ice creams, breads, cookies and muffins as well as savory recipes like soups, salads, pastas, tempura and pureed or baked as a side with grilled or roasted meats and is great for juicing, too.  Pumpkin is also quite nice served raw, either grated into salads or thin sliced and served alongside other raw veggies and your favorite dip.

These seasonal squash are low in calories, yet abundant in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Pumpkin is a great source for vitamins A, B-complex, C, and E all are rich in anti-oxidants and anti-aging properties.

Health benefits aside,  legend and folk lore has it that this grandest of gourd’s is also an aphrodisiac…so all of a sudden, pumpkin season could take on a whole new meaning … I’ll leave it at that and let you draw your own conclusions.

Pumpkins grow in a wide variety of sizes, some weighing in at well over 100 pounds. Save the big bruisers for winning awards at county fares and for carving contests. Nothing like a large Jack-o-lantern set out and lit up on the porch designed to welcome treat or treating seasonal guests.

Keep in mind that once “Jack” has been carved and spent several nights out of doors, all sorts of  creepy crawly things may take up residence, which is fine, if the plan is to keep the carved pumpkin outside.

But, if you were planning to cook and eat the pulp before the holiday or after the 31st, then best to buy another pumpkin or two or three for all  your upcoming culinary endeavors this season.

For eating purposes, look for medium to slightly smaller pumpkins, those with more tender and succulent flesh. You’ll finds lots of locally grown pumpkins at local farmers’ markets this weekend. Buy several to enjoy from now till the end of the year and freeze to keep them even longer.

Like any other winter squash – butternut, acorn, golden and Hubbard – the skin should be free from blemishes and the pumpkin or squash heavy for its size. Store whole any winter squash, pumpkins et al, at room temperature for as long as a month or keep in a cooler place for as long as three months.

Because they are fresh and haven’t been warehoused since picking, locally harvested pumpkins and squash will be easier to cut into, despite the still thick skin, than will commercially purchased ones.

Heidi's Tips and TricksIf you are wary of wielding a big chef’s knife to cut apart your seasonal squash, take this easy and, lets face it, fun way out: Place your pumpkin in a large heavy-duty plastic garbage bag, take it outside and drop it on some hard concrete.

The pumpkin will split open into several pieces. Back in your kitchen, remove the pumpkin pieces from the bag, scoop out the stringy pulp that surrounds the seeds and then cut the firmer pulp from the outside pumpkin shell. Boil, steam, bake or fry the chunks of pumpkin as you would potatoes, or oven roast by placing the pumpkin chunks, skin and all, cut side down in a large baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about an hour, or an hour and a half or so, or until the pumpkin pieces are fork tender – about the same consistency as a baked potato. When the squash has cooled slightly, scoop is of the cooked shell.

OR, know that you don’t have to  cut or break apart the pumpkin before you cook it – you can cook it whole – you just need to provide several slits so that the steam that will build up inside as  the pumpkin cooks will have a place to escape. ( see the photos below)

This approach works best when working with a small to moderately sized pumpkin.

Forget the big knife, instead use a small sawblade pumpkin carving tool to cut off the top. Leave the seeds inside and invert the open topped pumpkin onto a parchment or silpat covered baking sheet. Use the small saw once more to cut five or six small steam “holes” in the bottom of the pumpkin – just as you would on the top of a pie crust.

Bake the pumpkin in a preheated 400 degree over for 35-40 minutes or until the pumpkin starts to brown slightly and just starts to give a bit to the touch.

Invert the warm baked pumpkin on a wire rack and let it cool.

Use a medium-sized pumpkin, baked according to my process outlined above to make…

IMG_7772Heidi’s Crustless Fresh Baked Pumpkin “Pie”

Start with a baked pumpkin as directed above. While the pumpkin is cooling, make the  topping and whip the cream.

For the topping: While the pumpkin is cooling, you can mix up a sweet and spicy topping for each slice. Simply combine 1 stick of butter; 2-3 Tbsp. of local Sorghum Syrup Molasses or your favorite local honey; 2-3 (1/4 inch slices) of fresh local ginger root, minced; 1-2 Tbsp. of cinnamon and 1/4 cup of organic sugar. Heat all of these ingredients together in a microwave or on top of the stove and stir until the mix is thick and syrupy.

Once the pumpkin is cool, you may easily scoop out the seeds and the stringy stuff that holds the seeds inside. Rinse the seeds and save for toasting.

Sprinkle the inside of the now seedless pumpkin with some salt.  I love using OuterBanks SeaSalt here for the very best flavor – it doesn’t taste salty, it just tastes more pumpkin-y!

IMG_7773Place the pumpkin on a cake stand… to serve cut it into wedges and top each wedge with a generous drizzling of the warm syrup, some freshly whipped cream and a sprinkling of toasted pumpkin seeds.

And here’s a cool variation on the theme...Once the pumpkin has cooled and you’ve salted it slightly, stuff it with softened vanilla or caramel ice cream. Freeze the stuffed pumpkin for several hours; then cut into wedges, top with the warm syrup and enjoy your fresh baked pumpkin ice cream pie!!

Heidi's Tips and TricksTo make your own pumpkin puree for use later on, mash or process the roasted, boiled or steamed chunks in a processor, blender or by hand. Season to be sweet or savory, as you choose and then use as directed in your favorite recipe. Cooked pumpkin pulp will keep in your freezer for six to eight months.

In addition to being used as a base for many sweet and savory recipes, pumpkin or winter squash puree may also be served on it’s own as you would mashed or creamed potatoes. Simply add a little butter to the puree and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Heidi’s Toasty Pumpkin Seeds

The pumpkin seeds, sometimes called pepitas, may be rinsed from the stringy pulp, which holds then in place inside the pumpkin and then baked.

First, rinse the seeds well, removing all of the pumpkin pulp. Then, pat the seeds dry between several layers of paper toweling. Spread the dry pumpkin seeds in a single layer on a lightly oiled or buttered baking sheet. Season them generously before baking with your favorite spice or spice combination.

My husband Tom loves Bojangles fried potato wedges – and so while I usually season pumpkin seeds with something as simple as a mix of salt and pepper or sometimes a  blend of garlic salt, chili powder and a dash of cumin; this year I decided to use the Bojangles seasoning on our pumpkin seeds and I have to tell you it is delicious!

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Jars of the seasoning blend are available at your local Bojangles or, if you don’t live near a Bojangles, its also available in a four-pack gift box at the company’s online store .

Toast the seasoned seeds in a preheated 200 degree oven for 45 minutes to one hour, turning them over halfway during the baking time. When the seeds are dry and toasted with a crunchy consistency, remove them for the oven and allow to cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container and enjoy over the course of the next several weeks and months.

IMG_8006.jpgHeidi’s Protein Packed Pumpkin Toast

A little sweet and a little salty way to start the day or enjoy as an afternoon snack

2 slices whole grain or seeded organic or locally baked bread, toasted to your desired doneness

1/2 cup of your own baked pumpkin ( unseasoned) mashed with 1 Tbsp, butter and salt to taste

1 Tbsp. bloomed Chia seeds – to bloom the seeds combine 1 Tbsp. dry seeds with 2 Tbsp. water; stir and allow to sit for a minute or two. Unused bloomed seeds will hold in the refrigerator for a day or two.

1/2 firm but ripe banana sliced

A drizzle of your favorite local honey –  I have several favorites, but in this case I used Dancing Bees Sourwood Honey from Monroe, NC ( available at several stores around town and directly from Jeff and Robin Knight at the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market and the Charlotte Regional Market on Saturdays)

Toasted pumpkin seeds, seasoned with your favorite slightly spicy seasoning blend

IMG_8003While your bread is toasting, mash the unseasoned baked pumpkin with the butter and salt. Remove from heat and stir in the chia seeds. While it is still warm, spread half the mix on a slice of toast. Top with sliced bananas, a drizzle of honey and the toasted pumpkin seeds.  Enjoy open faced or top with another slice of bread and eat as a sandwich.

 

Make + A + Reservation

If you liked these seasonal recipes for all things pumpkin, then you will love all of the recipes you’ll enjoy in one of Heidi Billotto’s At Home with Heidi or On the Farm Cooking Classes. Check out the list of upcoming classes here, call your friends and make your reservations now. You may make reservations by contacting Heidi directly via email or follow the links and register online here.   #TellThemHeidiSentYou

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