Everyone loves pumpkins clustered on a front porch, glowing orange and heralding fall. In the kitchen, however, the potential of these pretty, plump gourds can sometimes be overlooked.
That’s a shame. Pumpkins, whether roasted, braised, or puréed for use in baked goods, can enhance the fall table with their golden sweetness and excellent nutritional profile. (They’re especially high in fiber and vitamin A.) The squashes’ culinary range extends far beyond pie to salads, main dishes, soups, stews, breads and cakes – as long as you choose the right varieties, says longtime pumpkin farmer Frank Perry of Perry’s Garden Highway Gardens.
Above all, Perry cautions that cooks should avoid the big, round pumpkins meant for jack-o’-lanterns: “They’re not sweet,” Perry says. “The flesh is stringy and not creamy. Not all pumpkins are baking pumpkins, that’s all there is to it.”
If cooks have been disappointed with their pumpkin-cookery results, he notes, the first step they should take is to look carefully at the squash they’re choosing. The qualities that make for easy carving on the front stoop – thin walls and a large, hollow cavity – are a disaster in the kitchen, where you want heavy squash with a dense, thick flesh that will turn creamy when cooked.
Perry carefully selects the pumpkin varieties, both cooking and decorative, that he grows with his brothers on their 25-acre patch. The farm, founded by Perry’s father in the 1930s, also grows a wide range of other crops.
Perry and his brothers sell direct to consumers at the farm’s stand, at 3101 El Centro Road, Sacramento, and 11 farmers markets, as well as to restaurants and bakeries, pumpkin patches and other farm stands. (They also operate a low-key pumpkin patch and corn maze for kids throughout October.)
Their pumpkin production, from minis to 300-pound giants, has grown from just a couple of acres’ worth in recent decades in response to increased customer demand for more diverse pumpkin varieties, particularly larger types. Perry jokes that he “drew the line” at a 25-acre patch, thanks to the labor-intensive nature of the prolific vines. This year, despite the drought, he says pumpkin farmers are seeing a bumper crop.
Over years of trial and error, Perry has gravitated toward growing and selling three main orange culinary varieties: Spooktacular, Mystic Plus and his favorite, Pikapie: “Those three varieties have dark-orange, smooth, creamy flesh,” he says. “I myself think the Pikapie is the best. You can feel the weight of that pumpkin when you pick it up.”
All three of these cultivars are medium-sized, round, classically orange pumpkins, resembling the Sugar Pie, another orange pumpkin lauded for its qualities in the kitchen. Perry, however, says that for growing conditions in our area these varieties are ideal: “We keyed in on those because they have good disease resistance, they’re good-looking pumpkins, and they’ve had very good success with all my customers. Some of my fruit stands request varieties by name.”
Plenty of other pumpkins, however, can be hits in the kitchen. The striking white Lumina, a large white pumpkin with a golden interior, cooks up beautifully. “It’s got solid, heavy, smooth, sweet creamy flesh,” Perry says. “I’ve got a couple of bakeries will only use that pumpkin for their pumpkin pies.”
If you can’t find any of these varieties, however, you can still achieve pumpkin-cooking success. Here’s the not-so-dirty little secret about pumpkins: In the end, they’re just winter squash. “They’re all the cucurbit family, and they’re all the same,” Perry says. (Hard winter squashes make up the cucurbita family, along with zucchini and other summer squash and decorative gourds.) “The butternut squash is a good one to fall back on.”
Other hard squashes, such as acorn or kabocha, offer similar nutritional and flavor profiles as pumpkin.
Whether you use pumpkin or a doppelgänger squash, you’ll find that its golden hue and rounded, mellow flavor lend themselves well to improvising in the fall kitchen. Try adding chunks of squash to a spicy Thai-style curry or any hearty braise or stew, as in the sausage ragout recipe that follows. You can also use pumpkin purée to thicken vegetable soups such as minestrone. Or you can roast chunks to serve with other vegetables as a side dish or to toss in salads, like our wild rice and pomegranate salad.
However you choose to cook pumpkins, just remember to leave those smiling jack-o’-lanterns on the porch.
Pumpkin prep and tips
• Choose a pumpkin: Recommended varieties for cooking include the standard orange varieties Pikapie, Spooktacular and Mystic Plus; the white Lumina; bright orange, lumpy Cinderella; striking blue-green Jarrahdale; and the brown Long Island Cheese. If you don’t find one of these, look for a pumpkin that’s heavy for its size, indicating thick, solid flesh, or substitute a winter squash such as butternut.
• Break it down: It can be difficult to cut up a thick-fleshed pumpkin. To make it easier, use a very sharp, heavy knife to slice a curved section off the side rather than trying to cut through the thick middle. Scrape off the seeds and, if cutting it into chunks, use a paring knife to cut away the tough skin before cutting up the flesh. Repeat by slicing off more irregular sections.
• Bake a purée: If making pie or other baked goods such as cakes or breads, you’ll need a smooth, not-too-watery pumpkin purée. To make it, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Leave skin on large pumpkin sections and brush them lightly with a neutral-flavored oil. Place them in a baking dish with 1/4 inch of water, cover tightly with foil, and bake until completely tender, about 1 hour. Cool, scoop out the flesh, and mash or blend in a food processor. If the purée is too moist or watery, let drain in a fine-mesh sieve.
• Befriend the can: If making purée from scratch sounds like too much work, don’t fret. There’s no shame in the canned pumpkin game. For pies especially, the results with canned pumpkin are often more consistent. Just be sure to choose pure canned pumpkin purée (not pre-seasoned pie filling) for recipes that call for pumpkin puree.
Pumpkin, bean and sausage ragout
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Serves 4 to 6
This colorful stew tastes good with all kinds of sausages.
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 fresh hot Italian sausages (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 onion, peeled and cut into lengthwise slivers
1 red bell pepper, cut into lengthwise slivers
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage leaves, plus whole leaves for garnish
1/2 cup dry white wine
6 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds) 1-inch chunks pumpkin
1 cup chicken broth
One 15-ounce can white beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a large pot with a lid, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausages to the pan, prick with a fork, and cook, turning occasionally, until well browned all over and nearly cooked through, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cover loosely with foil.
Reduce heat to medium-low and add onion and pepper to pot. Cook, stirring often, until vegetables are softened and beginning to brown, 8 minutes. Add garlic and sage and stir until fragrant, 1 minute.
Raise heat to medium-high, pour in wine, and cook, stirring and scraping to release browned bits from pan, until nearly evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add pumpkin and chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until pumpkin is tender, 15 minutes.
Cut the sausages into 1-inch chunks. Add sausage, beans, and parsley to pumpkin mixture and cook, stirring occasionally, until sausages are fully cooked and beans are heated through, 5 minutes. Spoon into bowls and garnish with sage leaves, if desired. Salt and pepper to taste.
Roasted pumpkin and wild rice salad
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes (some overlap)
Serves 4 to 6
This pretty, jewel-toned salad makes an ideal autumn side dish. If you can’t find fresh pomegranates, substitute dried tart cherries or dried cranberries.
1 cup wild rice
4 cups (about 1 pound) pumpkin, peeled and cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch chunks
5 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon each ground cumin and paprika
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1 bunch lacinato or dinosaur kale
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Fresh-ground black pepper
1 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup pepitas (green pumpkin seeds)
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the wild rice, reduce heat to medium, and simmer until rice is tender, 30-40 minutes. Drain well in a fine-mesh sieve, transfer to a large shallow bowl, and let cool.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss pumpkin chunks with 2 tablespoons olive oil and the cumin, paprika and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and roast, stirring occasionally, until tender and well browned, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, stem and coarsely chop the kale leaves. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and spread on another rimmed baking sheet. Roast until some kale is crisp and remainder is tender, 7-10 minutes. Let pumpkin and kale cool.
In a small bowl, mix the lemon juice, the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
Add the pumpkin chunks, roasted kale, and most of the pomegranate seeds and pepitas (reserving some for garnish) to the bowl with the wild rice. Add the lemon dressing and mix gently to coat. Sprinkle with the remaining pomegranate seeds and pepitas and serve.
Pumpkin stout cupcakes with chocolate glaze
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes, plus cooling time
Makes 12 cupcakes
Perfect treats for a Halloween party, these little cakes are also delicious topped with cream cheese frosting. Double the recipe for a crowd.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and ginger
1/4 teaspoon each ground cloves and nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup pumpkin purée (see sidebar)
1/2 cup stout, such as Guinness
1/3 cup heavy cream
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
Pepitas (green pumpkin seeds), for garnish (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. Sift together the flour, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and beat until well combined. Stir in the pumpkin purée. Beat in the flour mixture and the stout alternately in 3 batches, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, until well combined.
Spoon the batter evenly into the prepared muffin cups. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out with a few moist crumbs attached, about 22 minutes. Let cool completely.
When completely cool, make the chocolate glaze: In a glass cup, microwave the cream at 50 percent power until steaming hot but not bubbling, 1-2 minutes. Add the chocolate to the cup and stir well until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Let stand, stirring occasionally, until cooled and partially thickened, about 15 minutes. Spoon a little glaze over each cupcake. If desired, garnish each cupcake with a few pepitas.