The great pumpkin

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

John Whitney chooses from a half dozen varieties of winter squash at the Durango Farmers Market grown by Jennifer and Joe Wheeling of the Gardens at James Ranch.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

Call them pompions, pumpions or pommions, as the early colonists did, but that large orange fruit of fall is still a pumpkin by any other name.

And while most Americans associate the largest of winter squashes with cold weather sweets like pies, breads and puddings, a short survey of locals at the Durango Farmers Market on a recent chilly Saturday morning revealed an age-old passion for the detritus of the baking process.

“I just love the seeds, don’t you?” said Ed Pretzer, chatting with Lee Ann Hill, owner of Laughing Wolf Farm in Mancos.

“Roast the seeds” was the first answer folks gave to the question of what to do with a pumpkin, now that its season is in and you can find large displays at the grocery store and heirloom varieties at the market.

For the record, the hardest part of roasting the almond-shaped seeds is cleaning off the pumpkin goo. Just toss them with butter or olive oil, spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet, sprinkle with sea salt and bake at 325 F for half an hour or so.

(In my personal experience, never having been exposed to an actual cooked pumpkin, my first attempt at making pumpkin pie resulted in disaster. I discovered too late that you cook not the stringy mess from the inside of the pumpkin, but the shell itself. )

Pumpkins originated in North America more than 5,000 years ago and were a staple of Native Americans, who wove them for mats, dried them for bowls and stored them for winter food. The Irish carved turnips and potatoes into scary visages to keep the evil spirits away, a tradition Puritans adapted to the bounteous pumpkins introduced to them by Indians.

Taking a cue from our early ancestors, one might ask, what can we do with a pumpkin besides carve it or turn it into a pie?

Harvest festivals feature pumpkin bowling, pumpkin golf and pumpkin chucking, in which merry contestants devise catapult-like contraptions to heave the gourd the furthest distance. Farmers have gotten into the mindset of the Guinness Book of World Records, growing them upwards of 2,000 pounds. (The largest one to be found at the local market was the variety Connecticut Field grown by Kerby Orchards, weighing in at 65 pounds and sold before 9 a.m.)

Some veterinarians suggest feeding it to house pets for stomach ailments because it is low in fat and high in fiber.

Many of us decorate with it, using it as an icon of fall from our doorsteps to our tabletops, miniature versions to hold place cards, medium-sized to adorn windows, substantial ones to light the walk.

Early Puritans used a halved pumpkin as a template for a man’s haircut, giving birth to the term “pumpkin-head.” The fairy godmother in Cinderella turned the giant squash into a coach and four.

But lacking magical powers, our options diminish. As lowly mortals, most of us just cook with it.

“Bread, soup, pie,” said Susan Lander of Lander and Associates, a nonprofit consulting firm. “I just have to make it and see what comes out.”

In Southwest Colorado, we’re fortunate to have farmers who grow not only the traditional bright orange pumpkin most commonly used for decoration, but also hand-sized pumpkins perfect for baking and crimson-colored varieties to feature in savory dishes.

Hill grows a green pumpkin called Acoma, which she plans to use for her Halloween jack-o’-lantern. She takes a tip from the early Indians, arranging for the prickly vine of the pumpkin to grow around her corn stalks, protecting them from thieving deer.

Right now you can find winter squashes in every hue and size, from smaller than a tennis ball to bigger than a sofa cushion, from pale white to mint green to flaming red.

While pumpkins as a whole aren’t difficult to grow, they’re difficult to grow in the Four Corners because of the abbreviated season. They need warm soil and plenty of water, translating into planting after the last frost of spring, early to mid-June, and harvesting before the heavy frosts of fall.

Several farmers lost almost their entire crop this year, including the large pumpkins at the Gardens at James Ranch and every single one at Rohwer’s Farms.

“We had a total crop failure,” Judy Rohwer said. “I can’t believe what happened. I can’t explain it.”

In other words, if you’re looking for local or even state-grown pumpkins, the time is now.

Some cooks interchange squash with pumpkin, saying they find them so similar in flavor that they can swap one for the other. But others disdain the practice, noting that the flavors and textures of the different winter squashes vary considerably. Pumpkin is softer and wetter than many and more full-flavored than others.

As for cooking, pumpkin does not need to appear at the table only in desserts. At restaurants such as Guido’s Favorite Foods and Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, it shows up in the form of savory ravioli, a divine northern Italian inspiration. Homemade soups like spicy pumpkin ginger or soothing pumpkin apple make a marvelous seasonal first course. And a simple root vegetable bake featuring pumpkin, potatoes and parsnips adds the proper weight to a cold weather meal.

Buy let us not forsake the pumpkin treats of our childhood, either. Who can resist a richly spiced pie with a generous dollop of whip cream, or a nutmeg-scented muffin adorned with butter or a simple pumpkin sugar cookie iced with royal frosting? (And really, why would you? One cup of fresh pureed pumpkin costs you a mere 48 calories and 6 grams of carbohydrates.)

However, if you’re already into the holiday spirit of indulgence, do try Animas Chocolate Co.’s pumpkin spice truffle, a confection of baked, pureed pumpkin enhanced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and gingersnap cookies.

“Voila,” said owner Carly Snider. “Comfort food in a chocolate.”

And without lifting a finger – now that’s a holiday harvest treat for any cook.

An earlier version of this story misstated the provenance of the largest pumpkin at the Durango Farmer’s Market as Connecticut. The variety of pumpkin is called Connecticut Field, and it was grown at Kerby Orchards near Farmington.

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