Pumpkins aren't just for pie anymore. For as long as there has been Thanksgiving, Americans have clung stubbornly to the notion that pumpkin is meant to be served on a crust with whipped cream.
And on only one day each year.
The Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009, when a lousy harvest resulted in (OK, modest) panic-buying and hoarding, appears to have caught our attention, and we are looking at the pumpkin in a new way.
"We think of pumpkins only as that Halloween thing," said Donna Crivello, owner of Donna's restaurants, who makes pumpkin ravioli and pumpkin risotto.
"Maybe we just think a pumpkin is too big and too hard to break open," she said, then added this advice: Simply prick the skin and bake in a slow oven, and pumpkin becomes easy to skin and cube. Bake it longer, and the pumpkin flesh will be soft enough for a pumpkin soup.
"You can use the smaller pie-sized pumpkins in almost all the same recipes that call for winter squash," says Teresa O'Connor, who writes the blog Seasonal Wisdom and is a co-author of "Grocery Gardening."
"Instead of potatoes, try mashing cooked pumpkins with different toppings like feta cheese, nuts, yogurt, cinnamon, cumin or other spices for a healthy side dish."
Healthy is right.
Pumpkins are packed with vitamin A in the form of cancer-fighting beta carotene, not to mention the B complex and C vitamins, as well as potassium, calcium and iron, O'Connor says.
Pumpkins have a fun side, too. Pastry chef Cindy Selby, owner of Blondie's Baking Company, a cafe in North Beach in Anne Arundel County, has made pumpkin flan and created individual creme brulees inside tiny pumpkins. "It is cute and a fun thing to do," she said.
"I just love fall. It is my favorite time of year, and it begins with pumpkin and maple syrup," said Selby, who created a recipe for a dessert bread that includes both.
You don't know what you have until it is gone, and home cooks were shocked in August and early September when they realized there was a shortage of canned pumpkin.
Grocery shelves are usually stocked with the surplus canned pumpkin from the previous season, and a poor growing season in 2009 and a rain-soaked harvest in Morton, Ill., the pumpkin capital of the world, kept the tractors from the fields, where the pumpkin crop was left to rot.
Nestle, which cans nearly 85 percent of the pumpkin sold in the U.S. under its Libby's label, had nothing to sell until the 2010 harvest — reported to be a good one — began to roll in in mid-September.
Some dedicated pumpkin fans even turned to eBay, where, the Associated Press reported, cans that normally sell for $1.50, were selling for $6 and $7.
In Maryland, this pumpkin growing season has been uneven — some farms received more rain than others — but generally good, said Brian Butler, the Carroll County extension agent for the University of Maryland and the state's unofficial pumpkin expert.
"It has been a little bit dry in places and a little bit too hot in places," said Butler. "Hot temperatures keep the pollination down." Maryland, he said, is almost ideally suited geographically to grow 30 or 40 varieties of pumpkin.
It is heat and drought that make pumpkin a staple of the vegetarian diet in his home country, said Qayum Karzai, the owner of Baltimore's award-winning Afghan restaurant, The Helmand.
" Afghanistan has little refrigeration and no winter vegetables. And pumpkin has a long shelf life, so all these things make it popular in Afghanistan," he said.
Kaddo bowrani, or "baked pumpkin," the appetizer he serves at The Helmand, is the restaurant's most popular dish. Chunks of pumpkin are fried and then slow-baked with a hint of sugar and cinnamon, served with warm yogurt mixed with garlic.
The soft pumpkin and yogurt, slathered on a warm, peppery flatbread, would be the main course in Afghanistan, Karsai said. "Unless it is a state dinner or guests you want to impress."
He buys enough pumpkins to last until May, he said, when he is forced to switch to eggplant or another squash until the pumpkin harvest comes in.
Pumpkin bread and pumpkin muffins are traditional ways to enjoy pumpkin in the fall. But The Main Ingredient, an Annapolis restaurant and catering service, startled its first patrons years ago by serving pumpkin muffins with all of its entree salads.
"It was a sweet way to finish off a salad. It was different, and it became our signature," said Evie Turner, a vice president at The Main Ingredient. They serve between 700 and 950 mini pumpkin muffins a week and go through 750 No. 10 cans of pumpkin in a year.
Happily, she said, the restaurant's supplier came through during The Great Pumpkin Crisis.
Would she share a recipe for the signature muffins?
"Never," she said, laughing.
The Helmand's kaddo bowrani (baked pumpkin)
Makes: 4-6 servings
1 small pumpkin (baby or spookies work best)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
For yogurt sauce:
1 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon fresh-cut diced garlic
Slice pumpkin and remove seeds. Peel outer skin. Slice 2-inch pieces lengthwise. Place oil in skillet pan and heat to medium heat. Add pumpkin. Cook on medium heat covered for approximately 10 minutes, turning once.
Remove from pan and place in small roasting or baking pan. Sprinkle the pumpkin with the sugar and cinnamon. Cover tightly. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minute or until soft. Time may differ according to the hardness of the pumpkin.
For yogurt sauce, stir ingredients together until smooth.
Serve pumpkin warm with yogurt sauce.
Courtesy of Qayum Karsai, The Helmand
Roasted butternut squash or pumpkin risotto
1 yellow (large) onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter (more if you wish to finish)
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 cups roasted butternut squash or pumpkin (see notes)
1 pound arborio rice
8-10 cups homemade stock (chicken, or vegetable)
salt and pepper
fresh herbs, thyme, parsley
1/2 cup grated romano cheese (more if you wish)
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
To roast squash or pumpkin: Use two 11/2-pound butternut squash or one 3-pound pumpkin: Set on sturdy baking pan, prick the skin with a small, sharp knife, making about 20 tiny holes to let out steam.
Roast in hot oven (450 degrees) for about 20 minutes or until skin browns a bit and you can pierce the skin and go through to the flesh just slightly. Remove from oven, and cool a bit. Cut in half, scoop out seeds, remove skins and cut the flesh into cubes.
For risotto, coat the bottom of large wide skillet (with rather high sides) with olive oil. Bring temperature to medium high. Add half of the butter. As the butter bubbles, add the onion cook until soft, not brown, then add the rice. Stir, coating the rice with oil and butter, about 4 minutes.
Add wine. Stir for 2 to 3 minutes until rice absorbs the liquid. Have hot stock ready. Add the squash or pumpkin cubes to rice, stir. When the rice has absorbed all the stock, (careful not let the rice stick) add more liquid. Continue to add stock, stir, wait until rice absorbs the liquid, then add more stock. About another 15 minutes.
When cooking time as reached about 25 minutes check doneness of rice. Add more liquid if needed and then stir in softened butter and cheese, raisins and spices. Finish with chopped herbs.
Another option: Try other cheeses such as gorgonzola, or chopped apples, or top with toasted squash or pumpkin seeds or nuts.
Courtesy of Donna Crivello of Donna's
Blondie's cranberry pecan pumpkin bread
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup canned pure pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter 91/4 x51/4 x3-inch loaf pan. Line bottom and two long sides with waxed paper. Whisk flour, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, salt and baking soda in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until fluffy.
Gradually add 1 cup sugar, beating until blended. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Beat in pumpkin, then vanilla. Beat in dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in two additions each. Fold in cranberries and nuts. Transfer batter to pan. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar.
Bake bread until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour, 10 minutes. Cool bread in pan on rack 15 minutes. Cut around bread at short ends to loosen from pan.
Turn bread out onto rack; peel off waxed paper. Cool bread completely. (Can be made two days ahead. Wrap and store at room temperature.) A great French toast or bread pudding can be made with any leftovers.
Serve a side of maple cream cheese. Just take grade B Maple syrup and softened cream cheese and mix together to taste. Choose grade B because of the more intense maple flavor; your typical pancake syrup has too much sugar.
Courtesy of Cindy Selby of Blondie's Baking Company