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Pumpkins cook up in wondrous ways

By Margaret Hartley
Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When a mess of cousins visited earlier this month, each carload chose a pumpkin to take home.

Choosing a pumpkin is serious business. My son ran out to grab his choice — the biggest and roundest — before someone else claimed it. The youngest cousin was attracted to smaller pumpkins with big, curved stems, while the older ones went for traditional face shapes for carving. A young neighbor was looking for a tiny one, and I took her into the garden to choose a pumpkin-shaped gourd.

I tend to view pumpkins as food, for us or the animals. Not that I begrudge anyone their decorations — I like carving them myself. But before my jack-o’-lantern rots, I scrape out the candle wax and feed the shell to the beasts. Oxen love pumpkins.

Earlier this month someone stopped by for decorations, and threw four pumpkins and two long-necked butternut squashes into the back of her van. Those long necks make really good eating, and I’ll admit I felt a little pang knowing they were destined for porch decorations.

It’s OK. Pumpkins and winter squashes — Hubbard, butternut, buttercup, Long Island cheese, tetsukubuto, Rouge vif — are all beautiful and make for lovely seasonal displays.

And with their hard rinds they last long enough to do double duty: One by one, you can bring your decorations inside, cook them up and eat them.

The easiest way to prep a pumpkin or squash is to poke a few holes in the rind with a fork or knife, and bake it in a pan with an inch of water in the bottom until it’s soft. When it’s cool enough to handle, slice in half and scoop out the seeds and stringy center (we feed that to the chickens). Then scoop out the nice orange flesh to cook or bake with.

Sometimes it’s watery — then I put it in a strainer over a bowl and let the water run out. Sometimes it’s a little stringy or lumpy — then I run it through a blender or food processor. Sometimes it’s perfect and I just whip it with a fork to make it smooth.

You can eat the squash as a vegetable side dish (with butter and herbs, or cinnamon and a little honey or maple syrup, or baked with milk and eggs like a custard). You can use it in bread and pie recipes. You can freeze it for later. And you can make soup.

Here are some of the many ways I make pumpkin soup, a winter favorite that can be made with any orange-fleshed winter squash.

The amounts are general and I encourage variations, because this is soup, not science.
Start with one large or two small pie pumpkins, or a similar amount of your favorite winter squash. Or even two cans of pureed pumpkin, if you must.

Endless Variations

For an easy and delicious soup, heat together about 6 cups of pumpkin and 2-4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock, depending on how thick you want your soup. Add a splash of maple syrup or tablespoon of brown sugar, then whisk in 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Season to taste.

You can change the flavor of your soup simply by spicing it differently: ginger and curry, or sage, thyme and onions. You can sub the cream or stock for orange juice or beer. You can add potatoes and carrots, or lentils and mushrooms. Here are a few variations I often use.

1. Sub 1 cup orange juice for the cream, and add 1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, ginger, ground cumin and salt. Serve topped with a spoon of yogurt and toasted almonds or pumpkin seeds. (This one is also good with sauted mushrooms.)

2. Add cayenne, ginger and a half-cup of smooth peanut butter, for a West African take on soup. You can add tomato paste and skip the cream if you like. Subbing coconut milk for the cream gives it a Thai flavor.

3. My favorite is a German variety, made with brown beer, sauerkraut and cheese. Sound odd? It gets rave reviews every time I serve it.

Saute a finely chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic, add a two or three cubed potatoes and a quart of stock, and boil until potatoes are tender. Remove, puree and return to pot. Add 6-8 cups of pumpkin or squash puree, half a stick of butter and half a bottle of dark brown beer. (The cook gets the other half.) Heat to boiling, stirring, then turn down to a simmer. Add a cup of sauerkraut and 1/2 teaspoon of caraway seeds. Stir in a pint of half-and-half, then a cup of grated pepper jack cheese. Gruyere works too.

Stir until all the cheese is melted, but try not to let it boil. And serve.

It’s rich, thick and perfect for a stormy night. And I’ll bet there are a few of those on the way.

“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at features@dailygazette.net.

 
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