Ubiquitous in seasonal still life scenes featuring black cats and witch hats, pumpkins are useful for much more than jack o’ lanterns. Pumpkins have a colorful history, and though it isn’t known where, exactly, pumpkins originated, many think that they come from North America, making this traditional crop well suited to most US fall climates.
Pumpkins need well-watered soil with good drainage and are tolerant of soil that is a little dry more so than too wet. They grow well in warm summer weather, with warm summer nights, not going too far below 60 degrees F at night. As pumpkins are a vining plant, they can be trained to trellises or other vertical supports. More than a few gardeners build little platforms, with a piece of wood supported on a dowel or other leg to keep pumpkins from snapping off trellised vines. For smaller varieties, the stem can thicken enough to keep this from happening, or the developing fruit can be supported in a little hammock, net, or the foot from a cut pair of pantyhose.
Pumpkins and squash can cross-pollinate, but generally only among the same species. This cross pollination will not affect the current year’s crop; it would only be evident in following years’ offspring. Pumpkins are like squash in that they produce male and female flowers separately and the small fruit behind the female flower is what distinguishes it most easily from the male. If saving seed, or in areas where pollinating insects are scarce, gardeners can pollinate the pumpkin flowers easily, though there are several schools of techniques. The first set of flowers probably will not bear fruit, as they are generally all male and can serve to attract pollinators to the area. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation are preferred watering methods, as they help to avoid the dreaded powdery mildew, among other problems. Pumpkins usually deepen in color and get a nice hard coat on them then they are ripe. Trim several inches of vine along with the pumpkin when they are harvested will help them store better. Fruits exposed to hard frost will not keep, so it is better to harvest a little too early than too late. Harvested pumpkins intended for longer-term storage need to be cured in a warm, moist place for about a week, and then stored in a cool, dry place.
Pumpkins vary in color, from the familiar orange to gray, red, yellow, and even the blue Jarrahdale. Trick or Treat features a hull-less seed, especially for eating. Cooking pumpkins tend to be smaller, less stringy, and fleshier than carving or varieties grown for their sheer size. Small Sugar and Sugar Treat, however, can both do dual duty as carving and as eating pumpkins. Ghostly white pumpkins with good flavor include Lumina and the Long Island Cheese heirloom pumpkin. Red Warty, Rouge Vid d’ Etampes and Cinderella pumpkins are all rich red-hued pumpkins good for eating. Of course, scooping, cleaning and roasting of any jack o’ lantern pumpkin’s seeds is a time-honored tradition that is fun and tasty regardless of the type.
Most parts of the plant can be eaten. Recipes feature the flowers, leaves, seeds, and flesh of the generous pumpkin, each with its own different preparations. Pumpkin seed oil is used sparingly as flavoring oil, like toasted sesame oil. Pumpkins can be eaten unripe (green) prepared like summer squash, or ripe and have a place at all parts of the meal. There are few smells as inviting as baking pumpkin with the reassuring flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice, whether in pie, bread or cake and the rich flavor pairs beautifully with cream cheese.
Fried pumpkin flowers are simple, and a novel snack at any get together; snip the blooms at their base, remove the center and wash gently, blotting dry thoroughly. Prepare a simple egg and milk batter, and dip blooms, then dredge in your favorite flour. Fry in a skillet in a good frying oil, like peanut, and serve with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
Pumpkin butter is like apple butter, and grandmothers’ recipes abound. This is a well-received gift and tastes wonderful on biscuits and toast as well as stirred into oatmeal on a cold morning. Pumpkin leaves substitute handily for other greens but should be blanched before cooking. For a soup course or a hearty family dinner, this soup has a nice body and flavor.
Moroccan Style Pumpkin Soup
1 cup dry garbanzo beans, soaked overnight and cooked (or 1 can)
3 tbs butter
1/2 sweet yellow onion, like Vidalia, Walla Walla or 1015, diced
8 cups bullion, prepared – vegetable or chicken
2 1/2 lbs or 4 cups cooked pumpkin, mashed*
3 tbs brown sugar
2 tsp ground cinnamon or 1 cinnamon stick
1/8 tsp ground allspice
dash ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in a large stockpot over medium heat and add onion, sautéing gently and stirring until the onion is translucent and beginning to get a little golden. Add cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg and once they become fragrant, pour in prepared bullion, and stir. Add pumpkin and brown sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 15 minutes. If you are using a cinnamon stick, discard, and taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as necessary. Serve with a nice dollop of sour cream, crème fraiche, yogurt, or heavy cream, if desired. Serves 8.
* Pumpkin, once cleaned and skinned, can be cut, and steamed on the stovetop, in the microwave or in the oven, with a bit of water and covered. Once the flesh is tender, remove and mash.
Amy Ambrosius is a writer and budding gardener living deep in the heart of Texas with her family.