In Season: The big fall flavor of pumpkin goes year-round

By Debbie Arrington

Inspired by Thai cuisine, this pumpkin custard is full of carotenoids and fiber.
Inspired by Thai cuisine, this pumpkin custard is full of carotenoids and fiber. The Associated Press

We’re in the midst of a pumpkin explosion.

Once confined to late October doorsteps or November pies, pumpkins have become the “it” food of fall. From lattes and curry to cheesecake and soup, pumpkin flavors a full menu of products and dishes that go way beyond holiday dessert.

“We’ve seen growth of (pumpkin use) over the years,” said Roz O’Hearn, director of corporate and brand affairs for Nestlé USA. “It’s become a year-round food. ... We see a lot of enthusiasm for pumpkin.”

Part of that popularity comes from pumpkin’s designation as a nutrient-dense “super food” with lots of vitamins and few calories, she noted. “It really seems that pumpkin has finally been acknowledged as such a wonderful source of antioxidants as well as flavor.”

Nestle’s Libby’s brand provides 85 percent of the nation’s processed pumpkin, the filling for countless pies and an essential ingredient in many other foods.

“We just completed our harvest Thursday and we had a really good harvest,” O’Hearn reported of Libby’s crop. “There will be plenty of pumpkin this year.”

Overwhelmingly, those pie pumpkins come from Illinois. Although California is the No. 2 pumpkin production state, our pumpkins tend to be grown more for looks (particularly as Halloween jack o’lanterns) than for taste.

Pie pumpkins have thick walls of sweet dry flesh unlike thin-walled carving pumpkins, which are bred to cut easily. Libby has its own distinct variety (Libby Select), a hybrid of heirloom Dickinson pumpkins.

“Generally, pie pumpkins range from 5 to 6 pounds,” O’Hearn explained. “These Dickinson hybrids are much bigger, 10 to 12 pounds. They’re extremely thick-walled with a creamy texture.”

These pumpkins don’t look like the squat Cinderella stereotype or well-rounded jack o’lantern material. Their un-pumpkinlike look has prompted the food myth that processed pumpkin is actually Hubbard or butternut squash. (Dickinson pumpkin and butternut squash are close cousins; both are cultivars of Cucurbita moschata.) While some brands may mix some squash with its pumpkin, Libby’s uses 100 percent pumpkin in its products, O’Hearn said.

“They’re very odd-looking pumpkins,” she added. “They look like giant dinosaur eggs. They’re oval, not round, and have very pale skin, almost the color of a manila folder. But when cut open, the flesh is a very beautiful, bright orange.”

About 1.5 billion tons of puréed pumpkin is produced each year. For its signature product, Libby’s contracts with Illinois farmers to grow thousands of acres, planted in late April and May.

“You can stand in Morton (Ill., home of Libby’s processing plant) and 50 miles in any direction, you’ll see nothing but pumpkins, pumpkins, pumpkins,” O’Hearn said.

All those pumpkins are processed in 13 weeks with the peak of production aimed for November, just in time for Thanksgiving. Most years, there’s enough pumpkin left over to fill other post-holiday demand. The exception was 2009. Rainy October weather in central Illinois turned pumpkin fields into bogs and rotted part of the crop. The result was a real pumpkin shortage.

“We had six cans of pumpkin total left after harvest,” O’Hearn said.

But pumpkin will be plentiful this fall, and that’s a good thing. Demand is at an all-time high.

Our taste for pumpkin starts with pie; it’s now tied (with chocolate) as the No. 2 most popular pie year round, second only to apple, according to the American Pie Council. It’s a holiday must, not just for Thanksgiving but Christmas, too.

But pumpkin offers much more than pie filling. In recipes, pumpkin adds fiber and nutrients while cutting fat and cholesterol. Its pulp can be used as an egg substitute in some baked goods.

Pumpkin can be a healthy part of breakfast, too. Try a pumpkin parfait, O’Hearn suggests. In a parfait glass, layer spoonfuls of processed pumpkin, Greek yogurt and granola, she said. “It’s indulgent, pretty and good for you, too.”

As an ingredient and flavoring, pumpkin now extends its season from summer into the new year. That’s prompted such new products this season as Toll House pumpkin-flavored morsels or Libby’s pumpkin cheesecake kits.

The current pumpkin-drink craze likely can be traced to Starbucks, which introduced its pumpkin spice latte in 2003. Now, pumpkin-spiked beverages are common at fast-food restaurants and coffee outlets. Those drinks use spices associated with pumpkin, not necessarily the squash.

“It’s as much flavor as aroma,” O’Hearn said. “Pumpkin is associated with strong aromatic spices – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. It’s a warm fragrance that makes you feel cozy. That’s what we feel when we think ‘pumpkin.’”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

Pumpkin 101

Nutrition: Pumpkin ranks as a “super food” with a lot of nutritional punch. One cup of steamed and mashed pumpkin pulp contains only 49 calories and no fat, but offers almost twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A. High in fiber, pumpkin also is rich in vitamins C and E plus potassium, beta-carotene and several other antioxidants.

Selection: Pumpkins are at their peak season late September through December, in time for Halloween plus holiday pies. Smaller pumpkins (no more than 3 or 4 pounds) generally have better flavor than larger ones. A good cooking pumpkin should feel heavy for its size. Look for shiny, smooth skin with good color and a thick stem. Avoid pumpkins with warty or wrinkled skin, bruises or cuts.

Storage: Ripe, mature whole pumpkins will keep at room temperature (or a little colder) for several weeks. They prefer a cool (60 degrees is ideal), well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight and away from heat. But keep them off cold concrete floors; they prefer a seat on a wooden pallet, bench or table with a little room between each pumpkin. Store away from apples, pears or other ripening fruit. Once cut or cooked, pumpkin should be stored in the refrigerator; use within three or four days. Pumpkin pulp may be frozen for up to one year.

Preparation: Pumpkins are a lot easier to prepare for cooking than carving a jack o’lantern. No peeling is necessary. Wash and pat dry the outside skin to remove any dust or residue. Cut off the stem. With a sharp knife, slice the whole squash in half, cutting top to bottom. With a large metal spoon, scoop out the seeds (save them for roasting if desired). Cut the flesh into cubes, as uniform as possible for even cooking.

The cubes can be roasted, steamed or baked until fork tender; time varies by size of cubes. For pulp, purée after cooking. Expect a fresh pumpkin to yield 1 cup purée per pound.

Small pumpkins (under 4 pounds) may be roasted either halved or quartered. After removing seeds, place cut side down in a large baking dish. Add about a 1/4 inch of water to the dish. Roast uncovered for 45 to 60 minutes at 350 degrees or until the pumpkin is fork-tender. Cool for a few minutes, then scoop out the pulp, discarding the skin. For darker and richer pulp, purée the roasted pumpkin with the skin.

A similar method also works in the microwave. Place pumpkin pieces cut side down in a microwave-proof dish. Add 1/4 inch of water. Cover loosely with plastic wrap, turning back one corner to vent. Microwave on HIGH for 6 to 8 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. Carefully, remove the plastic wrap and turn the pieces over. Re-cover with plastic. Microwave for 2 to 4 minutes more on HIGH or until tender. Purée the cooked pieces.

Native crop: Pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is an all-American food, dating back to 7000 B.C. in Mexico. But the name has European roots. “Pumpkin” derived originally from the Greek word pepon (“large melon”), which the French morphed into pompon that led to the British pumpion. American colonists get credit for coining “pumpkin.”

Pumpkin center: About 95 percent of the nation’s processed pumpkin (used for pies, etc.) comes from Illinois fields, mostly around Peoria. More than 100,000 tons of pumpkin are processed each year in nearby Morton, Ill.; that’s enough pumpkin for 50 million pies.

Substitution: Pumpkin can be used as a replacement for butternut, acorn or Hubbard squash in most recipes. Its mashed pulp also can sub for mashed sweet potatoes or persimmons in such baked goods as cookies, quick breads or pancakes.

Roasted pumpkin seeds: A byproduct of using a whole pumpkin: lots of seeds, which make an easy and nutritious snack. Clean any pulp off the seeds. Boil for 10 minutes in salt water (this extra step softens the seed coat). Drain the seeds in a colander, spread them out on a dish towel and pat dry. Transfer seeds to a baking sheet and spread in a single layer. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with garlic salt or desired seasoning. Roast seeds at 325 degrees for 10 minutes. Cool. Store in a tightly sealed container.

Recipe resource: Libby’s canned pumpkin, which supplies 85 percent of its market, recently revamped its website with many more savory pumpkin recipes added to its mix. Libby’s famous pumpkin pie is still its most popular recipe. Find them at

– Debbie Arrington

Salted caramel-swirled pumpkin cheesecake bars

Serves 12

Recipe from “Cooking With Pumpkin” by Averie Sunshine (Countryman, $16.95 paperback, 176 pages).

Note: For the caramel sauce, either make your own or use store-bought (such as Trader Joe’s or Williams-Sonoma brands). But do not use ice cream or sundae sauce made with corn syrup listed as the first ingredient; it will be too thin.


1 stick unsalted butter

1 cup graham cracker crumbs

3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Pinch salt, optional

1 egg

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature and very soft

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/3 heaping cup pumpkin purée

2 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/2cup thick salted caramel sauce, see note above


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, leaving an overhang on 2 sides, and spray with cooking spray. Set aside.

For the crust: In a medium, microwave-safe bowl, melt the butter, about 1 minute on high power. Add the graham cracker crumbs, brown sugar, cornstarch and salt, if using. Mix well with a fork to combine. Pour the crumbs into the prepared pan and use a spatula to pack the mixture firmly into the pan in an even, flat layer. Set aside.

For the filling: In a medium bowl (you can use the same, unwashed bowl), combine egg, cream cheese, sugar, pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice and vanilla, and whisk (or use a mixer) until smooth and combined. The softer the cream cheese, the easier the mixture comes together. Add the flour and mix just to incorporate. Do not overmix.

Pour the filling into the crust. Top with caramel sauce, swirled in a fanciful design. Bake 40 minutes or until center is set with very little jiggle; some looseness is OK, but there should be no sloshing in the center. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out mostly clean or with just a few moist crumbs. Cool bars in pan 1 hour before lifting out, using the foil overhang, and slicing.

They are best when served chilled: Cover the pan with foil and refrigerate 2 hours or overnight before slicing and serving. Bars will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Per serving: 331 calories; 18 g fat (11 g sat.); 67 mg chol.; 2 g protein; 40 g carb.; 34 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 140 mg sodium; 41 mg calcium.

Beef and pumpkin curry

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Serves 6

Recipe from “Pumpkin: Not Just for Halloween and Thanksgiving!” by Joanna Farrow (Spruce, $9.99, 64 pages).


1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

2 onions, sliced

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 1/2 pounds lean stewing beef, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

3 garlic cloves, sliced

1 ounce fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

1 red chili, seeded and chopped

One 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes

2 1/2cups beef or chicken stock

1 pie pumpkin, about 2 pounds


Creme fraîche, optional


Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the bell peppers and sauté 4 to 5 minutes until they start to color. Drain with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the onions, turmeric, coriander, sugar and beef; sauté gently 5 minutes.

Add the garlic, ginger and chili to the pan and cook 2 minutes, stirring. Add the tomatoes and stock and bring slowly to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover with a lid and simmer on the lowest heat for 1 hour until the beef is tender.

Meanwhile, peel the skin from the pumpkin; cut the flesh into chunks (remove seeds). Add to pan along with the reserved bell peppers. Cook gently 20 minutes until pumpkin is very soft. Season with salt if necessary and serve with creme fraîche, if desired, and basmati rice.

Per serving: 352 calories; 18 g fat (4 g sat.); 71 mg chol.; 29 g protein; 21 g carb.; 10 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 442 mg sodium; 78 mg calcium.

Salted caramel sauce

Makes about 1 cup

Recipe from “Cooking With Pumpkin” by Averie Sunshine.


1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup water

3/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter

1/2 to 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste (If using table salt, use less – perhaps 1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon)


In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water. Heat over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally.

Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil without stirring. Carefully use a wet pastry brush or damp paper towel to wipe down any crystals that cling to the sides of the saucepan. Failure to remove them could result in a grainy sauce. Boil until the mixture is a deep amber color, about 5 to 6 minutes; it will turn color fairly quickly.

Remove the pan from the heat and carefully whisk in the cream; the mixture will bubble up vigorously. Add the vanilla; it will bubble up again. Stir in the butter and salt to taste. Transfer the caramel to a glass or heatproof jar with a lid. Caramel sauce will keep airtight for months in the refrigerator.

Per (1 tablespoon) serving: 115 calories; 7 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 23 mg cholesterol; no protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; no fiber; 65 mg sodium; 10 mg calcium.

Pumpkin latte

Serves 2 (8 ounces each)

Most commercial pumpkin lattes contain little if any pumpkin. This version has a good helping of the real thing, along with its nutrients. Recipe courtesy of Libby’s.


1 cup strong coffee

2/3 cup (a 5-fluid-ounce can) evaporated fat-free milk

1/4 cup pumpkin purée

1 to 2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1/8 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice or ground cinnamon


Combine coffee, evaporated milk, pumpkin, sugar and pumpkin pie spice in a 2-cup microwave-safe glass measure or small saucepan. Heat until very hot (if using stove, use medium-low heat and stir occasionally). Carefully pour into mugs and serve.

Tip: To make a foamy top to your latte, prepare as above. Carefully transfer hot mixture into blender container; cover with lid and then hold down lid with folded towel or potholder. Blend for 1 minute or until foamy. Serve.

Pumpkin lasagna

Serves 6

A crowd-pleaser at holiday gatherings, this easy vegetarian recipe comes from Libby’s.


Nonstick cooking spray

1 tablespoon olive oil

8 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

1 small onion

2 cups fresh baby spinach, washed and dried

1/2 teaspoon salt (divided)

1 cup puréed pumpkin

2/3 cup (a 5-fluid-ounce can) evaporated lowfat milk

1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Pinch of ground nutmeg

6 no-cook lasagna noodles

1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1 cup (4 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

3/4 cup (3 ounces) shredded or grated Parmesan cheese


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray 8-inch-square baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Heat oil in large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and onions; cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 6 minutes or until tender. Add spinach and 1/4 teaspoon salt; stir until spinach is wilted. Remove from heat.

Combine pumpkin, evaporated milk, sage, pepper, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and nutmeg in medium bowl. Spread 1/4 cup pumpkin sauce onto bottom of dish.

Top with 2 noodles, overlapping slightly. Spread 1/2 cup pumpkin sauce to edges of noodles. Top with half of mushroom-spinach mixture, 1/2 cup ricotta cheese, 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat layers. Top with remaining 2 noodles and sauce. Cover with foil or lid.

Bake for 40 minutes. Uncover; sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese.

Bake uncovered for an additional 5 to 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and light golden brown. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Parmesan and cream cheese pumpkin puffs

Serves 12

Recipe from “Cooking With Pumpkin” by Averie Sunshine.


2/3 cup canned pumpkin

1/2 cup cream cheese, softened (fat-free or light are fine)

1 sheet puff pastry

1 tablespoon all-purpose seasoning blend, such as Lawry’s, Grill Mates or Mrs. Dash, or make your own

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 egg

1 tablespoon water


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray; spray it thoroughly, so the muffins do not stick. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the pumpkin purée and cream cheese; some small cream-cheese chunks are fine. Set aside.

Spread out puff pastry on a clean, lightly floured counter or work surface. Spread pumpkin mixture evenly over the top, leaving a 1/2-inch margin on all sides. Sprinkle seasoning blend evenly over the top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste – remember that some seasoning blends are heavily salted and that the cream cheese and Parmesan also have salt. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese evenly over the top.

Roll up the puff pastry in as tightly wound a cylinder as possible. With a very sharp knife or bench scraper, slice the log into 12 equal-sized pieces. This will be messy; filling will spill out of the edges, and the slices will seem thin and skimpy. Do not worry about it. Place one slice in each well of the prepared pan.

In a small bowl, lightly beat together the egg and water. Brush this egg wash over the top of the pastry slices.

Bake about 20 minutes, or until puffs are golden, set, puffed and done. Allow to cool in the pan 5 minutes before removing. Run a thin knife around the edges to help remove them from the pan, if necessary. Serve immediately. Extra puffs may be kept airtight in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Per serving: 172 calories; 13g fat (4g sat.); 29mg chol.; 4g protein; 11g carb.; 1g sugar; 1g fiber; 520mg sodium.

Thai pumpkin custard

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus chill time

Cook time: 30 minutes

Serves 6

This dessert is by Sara Moulton, who writes: “This recipe ... stars Thai staples like kaffir lime leaves and coconut milk, and complements them with fat-free evaporated milk. You can find kaffir lime leaves in Asian grocers, online and often at natural foods stores. You can find them fresh (they freeze and store well), or even thinly sliced and jarred.”


3 large eggs

1/2 cup packed brown sugar, preferably dark

1/2 cup lite coconut milk

5 ounces fat-free evaporated milk

2 teaspoons finely minced kaffir lime leaves (or 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly grated lime zest)

1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons dark rum (optional)

Seeds from 1 vanilla bean or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon table salt

1 cup pumpkin purée

Chopped crystallized ginger or toasted coconut, to garnish


Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bring a kettle of water to a simmer.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the eggs. Add brown sugar and beat just until any lumps have dissolved. Add coconut milk, condensed milk, lime leaves, lime juice, rum, vanilla seeds or extract, salt and pumpkin purée. Beat just until smooth.

Divide the mixture between six 1-cup ramekins. Set the ramekins into a rectangular baking pan (such as a lasagna pan), pour enough simmering water into the baking pan to come half way up the sides of the ramekins.

Carefully transfer the baking pan to the oven’s middle shelf and bake until a knife inserted at the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and cool on a wire rack. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until well chilled, about 6 hours. Serve each portion topped with some of the crystallized ginger or coconut.

Per serving: 170 calories (18 percent of total calories); 3.5 grams fat (1.5 grams sat.; 0 trans fats); 90 mg cholesterol; 26 g carbohydrate (2 g fiber; 23 g sugar); 6 g protein; 170 mg sodium.

Pumpkin risotto with fried sage

Start to finish: 45 minutes

Serves 6

This recipe is from Sara Moulton, who notes that some people are reluctant to make risotto because of the amount of stirring involved, usually about 20 minutes’ worth. “There’s a less labor-intensive way to get the job done. It’s a method I was taught by Andrew Carmellini, a wonderful New York chef and restaurateur with an Italian background. He adds the broth just twice, half in the beginning and the remaining half after the first batch has been absorbed, which cuts way down on the stirring. ... After you’ve added the broth, when the grains of rice are just al dente, it’s time to put in the cheese, and perhaps an extra dab of butter. It’s also at this point that I sometimes pour in a little additional broth, which makes the risotto saucier. You can add the cooked veggies or protein at the beginning or end of this process.

“I cast pumpkin as the star of this dish because this is the season for it. But I’m not talking about Charlie Brown’s great pumpkins; I’m working with the mini guys. Most folks think these cute little squashes are just for decoration, but they happen to be super tasty. I roasted them, cut side down, until they were very tender, then discarded the seeds – a chore that’s much easier to do after the pumpkins are cooked. Finally, I scooped out and mashed the pulp and stirred it into the risotto. If you can’t find the tiny pumpkins, you can substitute 1 1/2 to 2 cups of mashed roasted butternut squash.”


Vegetable oil

About 2 pounds small pumpkins, halved top to bottom

36 fresh sage leaves (from 1 small bunch)


2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 cups Arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra to serve

Ground black pepper


Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a rimmed baking sheet with vegetable oil. Arrange the pumpkins, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Bake on the oven’s middle shelf for 45 to 60 minutes, or until a knife can pierce the flesh with ease. Using tongs, turn the pumpkin halves to face cut side up, then let cool until they are easily handled. Scoop out and discard the seeds. Scoop out the pulp into a bowl and mash it with a potato masher. Set aside.

In a 4-quart saucepan, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil to 360 degrees. Add about 6 sage leaves (don’t crowd the pan) and fry them for 10 to 15 seconds. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a paper towel, then immediately sprinkle them with salt. Repeat with remaining sage. Set aside.

Discard the oil from the saucepan, then return it to medium heat. Add the butter and onion, then cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a bare simmer.

Add the rice to the softened onions and cook, stirring, until well coated. Add the wine, bring to a simmer and cook until most of the wine is absorbed. Add half of the warm broth, return to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the broth has been absorbed, about 9 to 10 minutes.

Add the remaining broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the broth has been absorbed, about another 9 to 10 minutes. Stir in the cheese and pumpkin puree. Taste, then season with salt and pepper. Cook until just heated through. Divide between 6 serving plates, then top each with additional cheese and the fried sage leaves.

Per serving: 400 calories; 90 calories from fat (23 percent of total calories); 11 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 20 mg cholesterol; 61 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 13 g protein; 1290 mg sodium.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee