I am a glutton for gourds. Squashes send shivers down my spine. I think that pumpkins are perfect. I can’t wait for the fall when these oddly shaped and colorful vegetables are at their prime.
The squash family is, as the noted food writer and scientist Harold McGee tells us, actually botanical fruits that are treated as culinary vegetables. They are of the genus Cucurbita, indigenous to the Americas, and some varieties of pumpkins and squashes have been cultivated for at least 9,000 years. They are hearty and relatively easy to grow—and grow they do; a growing pumpkin can increase in weight by 12 ounces per day!
Pumpkins can range from the size of a grapefruit to the size of a beach ball or larger. Other varieties of the species vary widely in shapes and sizes. They range from the more commonly found acorn, crookneck, and butternut to some exotic varieties like white scallop, turban, and cocozelle. In late September and early October, you can usually find an interesting array of almost alien looking specimens at your local greenmarket and the more common varieties in your local produce section.
When choosing a pumpkin or squash, look for one that is unblemished and firm. They are actually fully ripened on the vine before they are harvested, so you don’t have to worry about their maturity. One of the reasons that these fruits have been so popular over the millennia is that they keep very well as long as they are in a cool, dry place. Just make sure to check them occasionally and to wipe them with a towel if they become a little moist. If they develop a soft spot, you can successfully trim and discard it and still be able to use the rest.
These vegetables are versatile. Pumpkins and squash can be baked, broiled, stewed, stuffed, frittered, puréed, roasted, or made into soups and bisques. They are so adaptable that they can assume the starring role as the main ingredient, as a supporting side dish, or as the grand finale to a meal. They can be folded into pies, custards and mousses, filled with savory stuffing and gratineed, used as a filling for ravioli or empanadas, and even, as in the case of the spaghetti squash, used as a substitute for pasta. The roasted seeds are a treat and can be eaten out of hand or used as you would a nut such as in a pesto, brittle, or butter.
The simplest way to cook a squash or pumpkin is to cut it in half through the stem, place it cut side down into a shallow baking pan with about a half-inch of water, and place in a 375º F oven and cook until tender, adding more water as needed. The cooking time will vary depending on the size and firmness of the species used. There are two ways to remove the seeds: before (along with the stringy membrane) or after cooking . I prefer the former because I like to separate the seeds from the membrane and roast them. As an experiment, you could cook one half of the squash with the seeds and one without and see which method you like best. If you are planning to stuff your squash, you might cook it inverted for a time to get it started and then turn it cut side up, stuff it, and return it to the oven until the stuffing and squash are cooked and tender.
If you are planning to use the flesh in a pie or as a savory purée, be mindful that most of these vegetables have relatively high water contents and should be drained a bit before using. You can reduce the liquid and add it back in if you are industrious to help retain the flavor. As a guide, one pound of raw product will yield about one cup of cooked flesh.
The way that you use the kaleidoscope of one of the most interesting and ancient of foodstuffs is limited only by your own imagination and motivation. The two following recipes can show how easy or involved you can be with your gourds.
HONEY AND ROSEMARY GLAZED ACORN SQUASH
1 acorn squash (about the size of your fist)
2 Tbsp honey
1 tsp sweet butter
1 tsp chopped rosemary
Coarse salt and fresh pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375º F. Place the squash on a cutting board with the stem end pointing at you. With a sharp knife, shave a thin slice of the skin off of both the left and right side of the squash. This will serve as a level base to help prevent the squash from rolling around when it is baking. Cut the squash in half through the stem; scoop out the seeds and strings, place skin side down in a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold the squash and prick the flesh with a fork which will help it absorb the honey and butter. Put half of the honey in each cavity with half of the butter. Sprinkle each with half of the rosemary, season with the salt and pepper. Add about ½ inch of water to the pan and place in oven and bake, basting the squash with the honey and butter mixture occasionally until the flesh is tender, about 35 to 45 minutes. Serve hot.
PUMPKIN-CHEVRE RAVIOLO WITH PEPITA-SAGE BROWN BUTTER
(Serves 6 as a first course)
2 lb pumpkin
Cut the pumpkin in half. Remove seeds and reserve. Place it flesh side down in a baking dish, fill with half-inch of water, and bake in a 375º F oven until tender (about 45 minutes). Remove from the pan, let cool and scoop out the flesh, roughly chop it and reserve. You need about 2 cups (if you have more you can reserve it for another use). While the pumpkin is cooking, remove the majority of the strings from the seeds, place the seeds on a baking sheet, and roast them in the oven until toasted. Remove, let cool, and remove the shells. Reserve the seeds.
1 Tbsp butter
1 medium shallot, minced
1 Tbsp julienne of fresh sage
Coarse salt and fresh pepper to taste
2 cups reserved pumpkin
3 oz goat cheese
1 oz grated Parmesan
In a sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots, a third of the sage (reserve the rest), the nutmeg, and salt and pepper, and sauté about one minute. Add the pumpkin meat and cook until thick (there should be about 1 1/2 cups left). Crumble the goat cheese and fold it in along with the Parmesan. Keep very warm.
For these “free form” ravioli, you can be industrious and make your own pasta sheets, buy some fresh sheets, or use egg-roll wrappers. You need 12 sheets about 4 inches square. Just before serving cook the sheets in boiling salted water until al dente, drain lightly, and place one sheet in the bottom of six shallow bowls. Place equal amounts of the filling in the center of each sheet and top with the remaining six sheets.
8 tbs sweet butter cut into chunks at room temperature
Fresh pepper and coarse salt to taste
The reserved pumpkin seeds
The rest of the sage
2 tsp orange juice
In a small sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat and season with salt and pepper. When the butter just begins to foam and brown, remove from heat. Add the seeds and sage, swirl a few times, then add the orange juice and stir. Spoon equal parts of the butter over each raviolo and serve immediately.
Philip McGrath, along with his wife Catherine, own the dinner-only New American restaurant Iron Horse Grill in Pleasantville.