You know it’s autumn when pumpkins start popping up on doorsteps everywhere. This is the season when pumpkins are king. They’re at their prime from September to late November, and that’s the time to transform these attractive seasonal squashes into delectable dishes — and we’re not just talking pie!
Pumpkins are grown on every continent of the world except Antarctica, and they’re central to the cuisine of many cultures. They’re a rich source of nutrition and can keep for months without refrigeration.
Pumpkins come in many varieties, some of which grow to an enormous size. Monster specimens make great jack-o’-lanterns, but small to medium-size pumpkins (1 to 8 pounds) are the ideal choice for cooking. Look for bright orange Sugars, red Cinderellas, or white Long Island Cheeses — all have sweet, firm flesh that’s not coarse or stringy.
Along with squashes, cucumbers, gourds and melons, pumpkins are members of the cucumber family. They come in a wide range of colors, sizes, textures and quirky shapes, and they’re prized as ornamental accents as well as delicious additions to autumn and winter menus.
Though pumpkins are commonly eaten as vegetables, they’re actually vining fruits. Common to all winter squashes is a hard, indigestible outer skin surrounding dense golden or orange-colored flesh that’s peppered with numerous large, flat seeds. Unlike their tender summer cousins, none of the winter squashes can be eaten raw.
Why choose organic pumpkins?
Pumpkins are actually winter squash, and winter squash is #28 on the Environmental Working Group's "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce," a list of produce that carries the most pesticide residues when grown conventionally. Commercial processors often apply petroleum-based fungicidal waxes to the skin of conventional winter squash to extend shelf life; they’re extremely difficult to remove and can be absorbed into the squash’s edible flesh.
Choose organic whenever you can to help keep the residues of conventional agricultural pesticides and fertilizers out of your food. Organic produce is grown without toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, using sustainable farming methods that protect the environment and help keep pesticides out of our soil, air, water and food supply. Organic food is the healthiest choice for people and the planet — and we think it tastes better, too!
How to select and store pumpkins
Select firm pumpkins with no visible signs of bruising or cracking, and no soft spots. They should feel heavy for their size, and their stems should be at least an inch long. (If the stem is any shorter or missing completely, the pumpkin will decay quickly.)
Whole pumpkins will generally keep for up to 3 months if stored at cool temperatures in a dry, frost-free place.
Tips for using pumpkins
A pumpkin’s mild, succulent flesh can taste rather bland, but it marries beautifully with many other flavors, making it a cook’s delight. Cooking varieties can be used interchangeably in recipes, even if they vary slightly in taste or texture. Pumpkins can be prepared in almost any way you’d cook other winter squashes: baked, roasted, grilled, boiled, braised or hollowed out and used as serving containers.
Delicious as they are, pumpkins require some preliminary prep work. To cook the flesh, cut off the stem end with a large, heavy knife, then scoop out the seeds and fibers with a sturdy spoon. (Reserve the seeds for roasting, if you like.)
Peeling a whole pumpkin is a difficult and tedious task, so take care! If you’re not baking the pumpkin whole, cut it into manageable wedges and remove the tough outer skin with a vegetable peeler. Roasting is an easy way to skip the challenge of peeling; the hard rind softens after cooking, and then it’s easy to scoop out the flesh or cut away the peel.
Canned pumpkin purée can be used in place of puréed or mashed fresh pumpkin; however, be aware that the canned product generally contains more moisture, so you’ll have to adjust the liquid in your recipe accordingly.