October is pumpkin harvest time. From Halloween to Thanksgiving, pumpkins symbolize the fall holiday season. They remind us of a time in American life when people were more connected to the Earth. How many other vegetables evoke feelings of nostalgia? Most pumpkins are grown for ornamental purposes. On Halloween, hand carved jack-o-lanterns let trick or treaters know they’re welcome at your door.
Early in our country’s history, pumpkins were an important source of food. Because they can keep for months without spoiling, they were crucial in getting the early settlers through the harsh winters. Pumpkins, along with cucumbers, are members of the squash family. Most parts are edible, including the outer shell, inner flesh, seeds, leaves and flowers. Ripe pumpkins can be boiled or roasted. Roasted pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, taste sweet and nutty. Pumpkin blossoms have a subtle pumpkin flavor and are delicious when battered and deep fried. Many African cuisines utilize pumpkin leaves. Green, immature pumpkins can be prepared just like summer squash – grilled, roasted, steamed or sautéed. Unfortunately, when pumpkins evolved into autumn decorations, we forgot how to eat them.
Growing pumpkins is easy, but what kind do you want, ornamental or culinary? Although all pumpkins are edible, some taste better than others. The traditional Halloween pumpkin is the Connecticut field variety, an heirloom type that’s hundreds of years old. These sizable globes weigh 15 to 20 pounds or more. They make wonderful jack-o-lanterns, but they aren’t really suited for cooking. They’re bland and watery and not very sweet. The best pumpkins for pastries and desserts is the Jarrahdale variety. These eight- to 12-pound blue-green pumpkins are squat with well-defined ribs. The dense pulp is deep orange-yellow with a creamy texture and a slightly fruity sweetness. Not only do Jarrahdales taste great, their distinctive shell is very attractive.
Most pumpkins require 110 to 140 days to mature. Plant them in late May after any chance of frost has passed. Pumpkins are ready for harvest when their color has turned from green to burnt orange (depending on the variety) in mid to late September. If you want to enjoy pumpkins for more than a few weeks after picking, they’ll need to be cured. Curing takes about two weeks. Set them out in the sun and rotate them every few days for an even exposure. Curing allows the skin to harden and form a protective barrier around the fruit. Cured pumpkins can last as long as six months. As they age, their flavor will deepen. Store somewhere cool and dry.
Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. It has since become a time when most families get together. I can’t imagine a Thanksgiving dinner that didn’t end with a traditional pumpkin pie. Pumpkin on its own tastes like any other squash. The magic of pumpkin pie is the combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves with a rich, creamy pumpkin custard, baked in a flaky crust.
Start a new tradition. Grow your own pumpkins.
Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at email@example.com