How to Pick and Preserve a Pumpkin

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PHOTO: JACK MCQUARRIE
A field full of fall's flavored food.

How to pick and preserve a pumpkin best for cooking, and a recipe for making MOTHER’s favorite pumpkin pie.

How to Pick and Preserve a Pumpkin

O, it sets my heart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.
(James Whitcomb Riley)

When most of us think of pumpkins, we tend to limit our
conjuring to visions of spicy pies and eerily glimmering
jack-o’-lanterns. Actually, though, the bright round gourds
have served a number of additional purposes —
gastronomic and otherwise — since . . . well, since
before recorded history.

In fact, archaeologists have found the remains of pumpkins
among the relics left by ancient cliff dwellers. And when
Europeans first arrived on these shores, they were quick to
learn — from native Americans — to plant the
distinctive squash between hills of corn . . . discovering
that their sprawling vines served as a living mulch and
helped keep the maize fields free of weeds. The early
settlers apparently developed “orange thumbs” in this
regard, too . . . because Samuel Eliot Morison (an expert
on the period) writes, in his book The Story of the
“Old Colony” of New Plymouth
, that the pumpkins
harvested prior to that first Thanksgiving were piled “in
great golden heaps alongside the houses”.

Of course, back in those days folks were wise enough to
make an effort to get the maximum use out of
everything they had . . . and the lowly pumpkin
was no exception. Some accounts actually report that early
New England barbers — when they couldn’t find a cap
or bowl for the purpose — simply hollowed out a small
pumpkin shell and fit it over the hair of a customer as a
make-do shearing guide (hence the expression “pumpkin
head”).

And, as you’d imagine, pioneer cooks used the vegetables
extensively: They dried the gourds and ground them into
flour . . . they baked or steamed the shells and —
after pressing the cooked pulp through a sieve and adding
sweetening and spices — put up jars of pumpkin butter
. . . and they prepared puddings and soups and wines and
dozens of other dishes from the squash, as well. (In 1672,
author John Josselyn reported in his journal, New
England Rarities Discovered
, that stewed
pumpkin makes a nice accompaniment to “fish or flesh” but
observed that the vegetable “provokes urine extremely and
is very windy”.)

All in all, then, this food is certainly versatile enough
to deserve a more prominent place in the
contemporary North American kitchen. For one
thing, pumpkin ranks among the richest of domestic produce
nutritionally: A half-cup contains only 27 calories . . .
but yields a whopping 2,500 units of vitamin A, and
considerable quantities of B complex and C vitamins, too.
. . along with generous amounts of phosphorus, calcium, and
iron.

Interestingly enough, relatively few cooks today realize
that pumpkin can be substituted in virtually any recipe
calling for winter squash. (Botanically speaking, the
pumpkin species — Cucurbita pepo
includes summer squash, too, but the “symbols of Halloween”
themselves are closer in texture and flavor to, and
therefore more appropriate alternates for, winter
varieties.)

As a matter of fact, because pumpkin tends to take on the
dominant flavors of whatever ingredients it’s cooked with,
you can use it as the basis for many different dishes . . .
particularly those that are highly spiced. For example,
next time you crave some banana nut bread and don’t have
any of the tropical fruit on hand, remember that “punkin”
can save the day.

HOW TO PICK A PUMPKIN 

I hope I’ve convinced you to try to increase your use of
this tasty, healthful vegetable, because early fall is the
beginning of the season when fresh pumpkins are abundant (
and inexpensive). If you’re growing your own, do
wait till after the first frost . . . then cut the orbs
from their vines, leaving about one inch of stem on each.
But don’t bring the harvest inside immediately. Instead,
let the fruit “cure” in the field for two to three weeks
(unless you’re hit by an extended rainy spell . . . in
which case you should get the golden globes under cover to
prevent rot).

If you’re buying a pumpkin, choose a specimen with
a firm skin and stem. The small “sugar” varieties are best
for cooking . . . but just about any size can be used in
most dishes. There’s no reason, for example, why you can’t
purchase a pumpkin of substantial girth to be carved into a
jack-o’-lantern and then recycled, after Halloween, into a
tasty meal or two.

HOW TO PRESERVE A PUMPKIN 

It isn’t necessary that you eat your entire supply of
pumpkin right away . . . since one of this vegetable’s
greatest advantages is its easy preservability. The gourds
don’t keep quite as well in a root cellar as do
thicker-skinned winter squash . . . but if handled gently so
that they don’t bruise, and stored — off the ground
and not touching one another — in a cool (50° to
60°F) moisture-free location, they should stay fresh
for up to three months. (Do wipe the cellared fruit with a
cloth from time to time, though . . . otherwise, the
moisture resulting from condensation could lead to decay.)

Of course, you can also freeze or can pumpkin . . . by
following the instructions in any good cookbook or
food-preservation text. As an alternative, though, you
might want to try a handy traditional southern method for
drying the produce. Just scoop out the insides and
slice the fruit into inch-wide rings . . . and then peel the
circles and hang them on a horizontal broom handle or stick
near your stove or — when the weather’s good —
outside.

If you let the rounds dehydrate until they’re tough and
leathery, and then store them in airtight containers (or
simply hang them in a warm, dry place), they’ll keep for
quite a long time . . . but if you use this preservation
method, you will have to cook the food at length
— as much as several hours — to restore it to a
palatable consistency.

ROASTING PUMPKIN SEEDS

I often wonder how many thousands of pounds of delicious
pumpkin seeds are thrown away each year by folks who are
anxious to scrape out the “gunky stuff” and get to work
carving their jack-o’-lanterns! I hope you won’t
be among those unfortunate individuals this season . . .
because it’s a simple matter to turn those “worthless”
kernels into a terrific taste treat for the entire family.

Simply rinse the nuggets in water to wash away the strands
of pulp, and then — after letting them dry —
scatter about two cupfuls on an oiled cookie sheet or
shallow baking pan. Sprinkle the seeds with a couple of
tablespoons of melted butter or salad oil, and — if
you wish — a teaspoon or so of salt or herbs, and
bake them in a slow (250 degrees Fahrenheit) oven until they’re crisp.
(You may want to turn up the heat for the last five minutes
to brown them nicely.)

If you like sunflower kernels, you’ll probably
love roasted pumpkin (or squash, for that matter)
seeds . . . and incidentally, you can eat them shells and
all. Better yet, besides being downright delectable, the
food makes an exceptionally nutritious high-energy snack:
An ounce of roasted pumpkin seeds yields 160 calories,
eight grams of protein, three milligrams of iron, and
substantial quantities of B vitamins to boot!

Strange as it may sound, you can also make a healthful
drink from the nuggets: Combine a cup of pumpkin
seeds and fibers, 3 cups of water or fruit juice, a
tablespoon of honey, and a teaspoon of parsley or mint . .
. and process the mixture in a blender. When the shells are
pulverized, strain the concoction and store the liquid in
the refrigerator until you’re thirsty!

AND THAT’S NOT ALL!

In addition to its better-known culinary
characteristics, the pumpkin serves a variety of other
practical purposes. Much of this country’s crop is sold for
stock feed . . . and in Europe the seeds are pressed to
produce a much-cherished cooking oil. Some say, too, that
the leaves from a pumpkin plant can provide an effective
fly repellent for cattle when crushed and rubbed on the
animals’ backs and necks. And you can even make a nifty
wind instrument from a pumpkin vine: Just choose a sturdy
eight- or ten-inch length of hollow stem and then —
at a point about an inch from one end — carve a
1/4-inch hole and (a few inches farther down) three or four
additional bores spaced about an inch apart. Then play the
gadget as you would a fife!

One thing’s for sure: No matter what you use your pumpkins
for this year, you’ll be joining the ranks of individuals
who — over the decades and centuries and millenniums
— have learned that this humble, easy-to-grow
squash,is a faithful provider . . . and a true friend to
those seeking sustenance and pursuing the path of
self-sufficiency. And that, perhaps, is precisely what
makes the pumpkin great.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re interested in expanding your
repertoire of delicious pumpkin-based dishes, you’d do well
to latch onto a delightful little cookbook by Erik
Knud-Hansen entitled
Pumpkin Happy. The
illustrated 54-page paperback contains recipes for dozens
of tasty-sounding foods — from pumpkin garlic soup
and pumpkin fritters to soufflé, custard, ice cream,
breads and biscuits, and wine (just to name a few!) —
and is available for $3.00 plus $1.00 shipping and handling
(California residents add 6% tax) from Aniccha Press, Dept.
TMEN, Camptonville, California.
You may also be interested in the recipes included in
MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 23’s “The Pumpkin . . . A Challenge to Creative
Cooking” (page 48), as well as the instructions for making,
preserving, and using pumpkin butter in
MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 65 (page 153).
To order back issues, turn to page 52 in this issue.


MOTHER’s All-Time Favorite Pumpkin Pie Recipe

We’ve printed a prodigious number of recipes within the
pages of this magazine over the years, but few have
elicited as much praise from palate-pleased readers as did
the pumpkin pie “receipt” submitted to us by Esther
Shuttleworth, mother of the founder of this publication. We
first revealed Mrs. Shuttleworth’s secret in issue 41’s
foldout and — in honor of the approaching
Thanksgiving season — reprint it here.

ESTHER SHUTTLEWORTH’S PUMPKREAM PIE

1 cup of granulated sugar (this would be difficult to substitute for . . . and, after all, it’s a holiday!)
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon of cloves (optional)
1 pinch of salt
2 eggs
1 cup of pumpkin (canned, or fresh and cooked till thick)
1 cup of thick sweet whipping cream
Unbaked pie crust

Combine all the dry ingredients, and beat in the two eggs
till the mixture is fluffy. Stir in the pumpkin and then
the whipping cream. When the filling is thoroughly blended,
pour it into an 8 inch (1-1/4 inch-deep) pastry-lined piepan, and
bake it at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes. Then reduce the heat to
375 degrees Fahrenheit, and bake the pie for approximately 30 more
minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the filling
comes out clean. While in the oven, the “pumpkream” will
rise, then fall somewhat and — when it’s nearly done
— develop little “good pie” cracks along the edges.
“Most pumpkin pies are too spicy and ‘pumpkiny’ for my
family,” says Mrs. Shuttleworth, “but they love this one!”