By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
I recently heard that this year’s largest pumpkin record holder weighs in at over 2,000 pounds. Can you imagine? The guy who grew it said he fed it fish and seaweed. That sounds funny, but those nutrients do come in a dehydrated form to use as plant food. It kinda makes me think of the venus fly trap in “Little Shop of Horrors”.
Yes, it’s that time of year again. One of the reasons I enjoy fall so much is the vast array of seasonal fruits and veggies available right now. Beautiful, shiny apples of all varieties, luscious, tart-sweet cranberries, buttery butternut squash, pears, figs, beets (oh, give them a chance), belgian endive, artichokes, brussels sprouts, cabbage, many kinds of nuts and of course; the quintessential fall favorite, pumpkin.
Pumpkin is one of those vegetables that just screams fall. Just add some canned pumpkin and a little cinnamon to a vanilla smoothie for a treat sure to get you in the fall mood. Many times, we think of pumpkin as a dessert ingredient, but this versatile veggie actually belongs to the squash family. I find it equally useful for savory and sweet dishes. There is nothing more comforting than a nice bowl of roasted pumpkin soup. Sometimes, if I’m trying to be extra fancy, I even serve it in a hollowed out pumpkin as the serving bowl. Just makes ya want to put on a sweater and cozy up next to a fire.
Not much says Americana so much as pumpkins. Native Americans prepared pumpkin in a variety of ways. They roasted long strips of it and wove it into mats. They roasted and ate the seeds and ate pumpkins boiled, baked, roasted and dried. They dried hollowed-out pumpkins to make bowls. They even fermented it into beer. The first pumpkin pie was made when the Pilgrims poured milk, spices and honey into a pumpkin with the top cut off. They carefully buried the pumpkin in hot ashes and allowed it to cook until it became a creamy custard. Pretty good thinking, huh? Pumpkins have been around much longer than that, though. Centuries ago, they were called pepons, which is Greek for large melon.
Then there is the annual pumpkin carving at Halloween. At my house, we call that forced family fun. I’ve already been receiving pictures of several of my friends’ carvings. I’m amazed at how elaborate some folks can get with their Jack-O-Lanterns. It’s quite artistic, really. In years past, we’ve used those special carving kits that have the different little saws, scoops and awls to create intricate designs in the pumpkin. However, our creations were neither artistic nor creative. Perhaps the lack of creativity had to do with the concept of forced family fun. Hey, we were making memories.
Where did this tradition of carving pumpkins come from? Go ahead and make yourself comfy, get in your toasty jammies and settle back with your pumpkin spice latte while Chef Renee tells you a bedtime Halloween tale.
Once upon a time, there was an Irishman who was called stingy Jack. As you might imagine, stingy Jack earned his nickname because he was…well…stingy. One day, he invited the devil to have a drink with him. When the time came to pay the tab, stingy Jack decided he didn’t want to pay so he tricked the devil into turning himself into a coin to pay the tab. Pretty smart, I’d say. Anyway, once the devil turned himself into a coin, stingy Jack decided to keep the coin. He put it into his pocket next to a coin that had a cross on it, which prevented the devil from changing back into his original form.
Eventually, Jack decided to free the devil, on the condition that he not claim his soul if he died and that he not bother Jack for a year. A year later, Jack again tricked the devil into climbing a tree to retrieve a piece of fruit. While the devil was in the tree, Jack quickly carved the sign of the cross into the tree, so that the devil was trapped and unable to escape. In exchange for releasing him, Jack made the devil promise not to pester him for another 10 years.
About a year later, Jack died. Since he was such an unsavory character, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven and since he had tricked the devil, not once but twice, the devil wouldn’t allow him into hell. He, instead, sent Jack off into the night with nothing but a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal in a hollowed out turnip and has been wandering the earth with it ever since.
Irishmen refer to him as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack-O-Lantern. Irishmen and Scots everywhere began putting carved pumpkins into their windows to ward off Jack and other evil spirits that might be lurking nearby.
Are you scared yet?
If you are looking for some fun fall thing to do this weekend, go check out the Liberty Hill High School Fall Festival, Saturday, Oct. 26th, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Many activities are free. That’s right, I said free! Every booth will be giving away small toys, candy and other goodies to any child who shows up in costume. This is a great opportunity for the kiddos to have a chance to trick or treat in safety. I plan to win me a cake on the Cake Walk, myself. See ya there!
2 whole pie pumpkins
1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup maple dyrup
Dash of nutmeg
Salt to taste
Extra cream for serving
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place pumpkins on a cookie sheet and roast them until slightly shriveled and soft. Allow to cool slightly, then slice in half and carefully scoop out seeds and pulp. Scoop yummy flesh into a bowl. Set aside.
In a pot, heat up the pumpkin flesh with the stock and maple syrup until simmering. Mash out the big chunks, then transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor (or use an immersion blender) and puree until velvety smooth. Add cream and nutmeg, then blend again.
Reheat if you need to, or just go ahead and serve in a hollowed-out pumpkin of whatever size you’d like.