All About Pumpkins
This week we celebrate the fall harvest, and what better way to start than with that most popular orange gourd, the pumpkin! Pumpkins actually come in a variety of colors—orange, yes, but also green, white, yellow, red, spotted or striped. Pumpkins are used for both cooking and for decorations, as feed for stock, and let's not forget the popular Jack-o'-lantern.
A native plant of North America, the pumpkin first traveled to Europe on the ships of returning Spanish colonists. The name reputedly comes from the Greek "pepon," large melon, because of its shape, and is frequently used to mean winter squash in general, particularly in other languages. Pumpkin festivals are popular in the fall in North America, where such events as "pumpkin chunking," in which teams build devices designed at pitching large pumpkins as far as possible, take place. Contests awarding the largest pumpkin have been around for centuries, with the largest pumpkin ever weighing in at over 2000 pounds!
There are numerous theories on the origins of its use on Halloween to fend off bad spirits. One goes back to the Irish myth of "Stingy Jack," in which the miserly Jack tricks the Devil in various ways, but usually by trapping him with a cross. Jack frees the devil when the latter promises never to take his soul. When Jack died, he was unfit for heaven, and unwanted in hell, and was sent off into the night by the devil with a burning coal to light his way. Legend has it Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and "Jack of the Lantern" (or Jack-o'-Lantern) has been wandering the earth ever since. Although the first jack-o'-lanterns were turnips, beets, and potatoes, settlers in North American soon found pumpkins to be the ideal subject.
From a culinary standpoint, the pumpkin is a gastronomic standout. It can be used to make dishes from savory to sweet and can be cooked in a variety of ways. Its seeds are popular both to eat and for making seed oil. Its leaves and even its flowers are edible! In Italy, for example, fried squash blossoms are usually made from zucchini blossoms, but pumpkin is popular (mostly in the north) in risottos, soups, or fried pastries, or in the famed "tortelli alla mantovana" stuffed pasta (more on that in Friday's blog!). The seeds are popular from North and South America to Asia. Pepitas, the Spanish term for pumpkin seeds (usually shelled, roasted, and salted) are a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine, from sauces like mole, to soups, gravies, and dips. In the Middle East, pumpkin is used often in sweet dishes, while in China, the leaves are eaten in soups. In Japan, small pumpkins can be served tempura-style. And in South-East Asia they are used in custard-style desserts, in soups, and with some meats.
In the US, of course, pumpkin pie is the most traditional way to use pumpkin. But from pumpkin breads to soups and purees, it shows up on the fall and winter table in a variety of ways.
How are you planning to prepare your jack-o-lantern next week? How will you eat your pumpkin this fall? Have you noticed any interesting pumpkin-themed items at your local grocery store?
By Peg Kern