Now before I am accused of personifying my produce, let me explain. Pumpkins are honest because their color is pure unabashed uniformly orange, both inside and out. They look pretty much the same cooked as they do raw. Their color reminds me of a line from an old Laura Nyro song entitled “Stoned Soul Picnic” which includes the lyrics, “red, yellow, honey, sassafras, and moonshine.” That phrase conjures up the magic and color of fall. And pumpkins.
And what about vigor? Have you seen the vines pumpkins grow on? It takes a lot of vine to support the lifeblood of a fruit (that's right: it's a fruit, not a vegetable) that can weigh anywhere from a couple of pounds to hundreds of pounds. The vines can be 20 to 30 feet long, snaking out across a garden, taking no prisoners as they inch their way toward reproduction. Their leaves are the size of dinner plates gradually tapering down until the outermost leaves are no bigger than a baby's hand. Pumpkin vines look like a gigantic finger pointing out of the garden, as though signaling to some unseen cosmic force.
Tenacious. A pumpkin's ability to hold on through the first snap of frost is a testament to its stoutheartedness. When other plants in the garden are black and shriveled, the pumpkin is taking on an inner glow that makes you start believing that maybe they can be transformed into carriages after all. They put on weight, acquire a lovely sheen, and settle into their pumpkin-ness with grace and humility.
A sense of humor. I know of no other fruit or vegetable that dresses up for Halloween with all the dash and derring-do of pumpkins. Dried arrangements and cornucopias have their place, but nothing comes close to the sense of thrill and adventure and playfulness as a well-tooled jack-o'-lantern glowing on a moonless October night. All proof, in my opinion, that pumpkins enjoy a good joke as much as the next person.
Another feature of the pumpkin that I admire is its utility. There is very little waste on a pumpkin if you take advantage of all that it has to offer. The seeds can be scraped out and separated from the stringy insides, rinsed, placed on an oiled cookie sheet, sprinkled with your favorite salty seasoning and popped into a slow oven (about 250 to 300 degrees) until they are slightly browned and crisped. I've even roasted them on top of my wood stove; just stay nearby. The flesh can be roasted, steamed, baked, braised, or boiled. Or, as in the recipe that follows, you can try cooking it from the inside out. Here's how, with a recipe borrowed from Ruth Reichl's book, “Tender at the Bone,” with a few of my own adaptations added in. The measurements are intentionally imprecise because they will depend on the size of the pumpkin.
(Inside Out) Pumpkin Soup
1 pumpkin, any size, preferably one with a jaunty stem
Loaf of crusty whole grain bread, day-old is fine, toasted and cubed
Gruyere cheese, grated, anywhere from 2 to 4 cups
Table cream, not whipping cream, or half and half, at least a couple of cups
1/2 to 1 tsp. of Garam masala. Garam masala is an East Indian blend of aromatic spices which includes cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and cardamom, available locally. Or you can substitute your own combination of any of the above spices or add some of your own. Nutmeg, perhaps?
Pinyon nuts, lightly roasted in a cast iron skillet until aromatic and browned
First, cut off the crown of the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds and strings. Save the top.
Layer the inside of the pumpkin two thirds full with the toasted bread and grated cheese.
Next fill up the remaining space inside the pumpkin with the cream or the half and half (do I need to explain which one is richer, creamier, and tastier?)
Put the crown back on the pumpkin and bake it in a 350 degree oven for two hours or more.
This is a fun dish to bring to the table — a steaming aromatic pumpkin with crusty cheese bubbling out of the top. And it's a friendly food that provides its own serving vessel; you can't say that about too many foods. To capitalize on the fun feature, go ahead and draw a jack-o'-lantern face on it with a Sharpie before presenting it. Or don't. Remember: pumpkins know how to roll with the punches. When you serve it, be sure to scoop out the pumpkin meat with the goodies. Sprinkle each serving with the toasted pinyon nuts. Feel free to experiment with favorite foods and flavors in combination with this recipe, because another feature of the pumpkin is its forgiving nature. Trust me on this.
Much of what you can do to pumpkins, you can do to squash just as easily. Kobacha squash is a Japanese variety of squash which is a combination of the flavors of sweet potato and pumpkin. According to one farmers' market vendor who sells them, it is superior over pumpkin in pie. I intend to test this claim in the near future. Stock up now. Thanksgiving is just around the corner.
I mentioned in the last Parsnippet that it was also time for parsnip fritters. I got the idea at the marketplace while chatting with Michelle at Song Haven Farm, and I'm intrigued enough to want to try it. Parsnips belong to the large extended family of root vegetables which includes beets, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, and parsnips, among others, all available at the farmers' market through October. Root vegetables respond differently to moist versus dry heat. Moist heat, such as boiling, braising or steaming, according to Russ Parsons in How to Pick a Peach, “softens the vegetable's starches and cellulose more quickly and keeps colors brighter and flavors purer and more direct.” Dry heat, on the other hand, will deepen and intensify a root vegetable's flavor, highlighting its earthy qualities. Higher temperatures used during roasting, says Parsons, will activate the root's sugars until they begin to caramelize. Regardless of your chosen method, peel the parsnips before cooking and remove any woody pale centers. After cooking, simply mash them as you would mashed potatoes, adding salt, maybe a little milk, and anything else that sounds good. Next, add a couple of tablespoons of flour to stiffen them up a bit so that they can be easily formed into small rounds. You could also try dipping the rounds into egg and dredging them in cornmeal. Fry them up in vegetable oil until golden brown. Serve hot with a pat of butter. My guess is that applesauce or baked apples, especially one of the red varieties to provide color contrast, would pair up nicely with these fritters.
When our boys were little, we had a favorite family saying around the dinner table which we often used while enjoying a particularly tasty meal. One of us would say through a mouthful of food, “Mmm ... nectar of the gods.” Our youngest son, who was only 4 or 5 years old at the time, scrambling his words in the way only a child can, exclaimed at one memorable meal, “Mmm ... god of the nectarines!” That innocent declaration still many years later makes me smile when I recall it, as I bite into a morsel of homegrown or locally grown food. Yes, indeed, son, it is all God of the nectarines.
The Cortez Farmer's Market is open Saturdays from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. at 109 W. Main (www.cortezfarmmarket.com).
The Parsnippet is supported by Livewell Montezuma, a healthy eating active living (HEAL) community.
Wendy Watkins is the owner of S'more Music, a private Suzuki piano studio in Cortez. She can be reached at 565-4129.