If you are a frequent grocery store or farmer’s market shopper, you know the summer harvest is near its end once you notice pumpkins on the shelves. A variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures of these magnificent melons signals the arrival of autumn. Sure, we carve the large Aladdin pumpkins into goofy-faced jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween, but pumpkins also have a rich, important history in American culture and cuisine.
Domesticated pumpkin seeds have been part of the human diet for more than 7,500 years. The pumpkin was one of the first wild plants grown by Native Americans for food and trade. The thick skin of the nutritious fruit made it easy to store through a harsh winter and the hollow cavity created a variety of useful options. Once the Pilgrims arrived in America, they were greeted with a variety of pumpkins and other members of the gourd family such as squashes and muskmelon.
It didn’t take long for the English colonists to boil, roast, fry, or mash these glorious gourds into soups, puddings, stews, tarts, and pies. When they gathered together in 1620 to give thanks for their new life in America, they adorned the first Thanksgiving table with colorful gourds and dishes made of pumpkin and squash. How a pie made with apple emerged as an iconic American dessert is a mystery, as pies made of pumpkin were a regular dish before Reverend William Blaxton planted the first apple tree on the North American continent in 1625.
Modern-day cooks buy pumpkins and gourds for decoration and prefer the ease of cooking with canned pumpkin. But most of what is sold as ready-to-use pumpkin is actually a mixture of several winter squashes such as Hubbard, Boston Marrow, and butternut. These varieties are sweeter and are less stringy than pumpkin. With a little planning, it’s not difficult to have the real deal handy for cooking. (See inset for preparation instructions.)
If you are roaming an outdoor patch for a pumpkin to carve, the pumpkin usually chooses you. When you’re shopping for a pumpkin to cook, however, you need to make sure you buy the best variety for your recipe. Pie pumpkins include Cinderella, named for the fact that it resembles the carriage created by Cinderella’s fairy godmother. Aside from its good looks, the meat is sweet. Pink banana is a winter squash that’s even sweeter, and the flesh has a finer grain. Choose a small, round red kuri winter squash to create a smooth and creamy soup. Butternut squash lends a nutty flavor to soups and pies. Roasted acorn squash creates a nice vessel for stuffing with wild rice, pecans, and cranberries. Or you can just drizzle the insides with melted butter and maple syrup.
Whether you are cooking or carving, choose a fully mature, hard pumpkin. And look for soft spots—pumpkins may look tough, but they spoil fast.