Far too nutritious and versatile to be reserved solely for Thanksgiving and Halloween pumpkins deserve to be added to your culinary repertoire.
by David Roth
With Halloween fast approaching pumpkins are in evidence all over the GTA, and many of us are preparing to engage in the age old tradition of hollowing out pumpkins and carving them into fanciful lanterns. Halloween, as celebrated by many people in North America, draws upon many cultural and spiritual traditions, not least of which are the Druidic harvest festival of Samhain, pronounced “Sahwin”, and the Christian Feast of All Saints. Samhain is celebrated from sundown on October thirty first until sundown on November 1, coinciding with the Feast of All Saints on November first. The name Halloween refers to the eve of All Saints, or All Hallows Eve. The story of how pumpkin carving came to be associated with and practised on Halloween in North America has its origins in Irish mythology.
As the legend goes a rather nefarious character named Stingy Jack was out drinking with the devil, as one does, and, true to his nature and to his name didn’t want to pay his bill. Jack convinced the prince of darkness to change himself into a coin with which he would settle their tab. Being even stingier, Stingy Jack was reluctant to part with this unholy coin and so walked out without paying and kept the coin in his pocket, next to a silver cross, effectively preventing his drinking buddy from changing back into his true form. Eventually Jack thought better of holding the devil hostage as a piece of currency and released him, but only on the condition that he leave Jack alone for a year.
The next year Jack convinced the devil to help him out again, this time by climbing up a tree to retrieve some fruit for him. While the devil was up amidst the boughs Jack carved a cross into the tree’s trunk, preventing him from climbing down. This time Jack released the devil on the condition of ten years’ amnesty and a promise to never lay claim to his soul. As with most people Jack eventually succumbed to the inexorable summons of death. God wanted nothing whatsoever to do with such an unsavoury character, but neither could Jack be admitted into hell, the devil being true to his word not to lay any claim to Jack’s soul. However, the devil was understandably miffed at having been had not once, but twice and so sentenced Jack to walk the earth in perpetuam as a lonely spirit and with only a single coal to light his way at night. Resourceful even in the face of an earthly damnation Jack carved out a turnip, making a lantern of sorts in which to keep the coal and to light his way. This earned him the name Jack of the Lantern, later being shortened to Jack O’Lantern.
A tradition sprang up throughout the British Isles based upon this legend in which people carved lanterns of turnips, beets, potatoes, and other root vegetables and placed them in their windows in order to ward off Jack and other wayward spirits. Early British colonists to North America soon adapted the practice to pumpkins as they were easily hollowed out and carved. The belief that spirits were to be found out and about on Halloween is why even today Jack O’Lanterns are carved and left out on October thirty first.
Now, as interesting as all of this is it belies the fact that pumpkins are also a most savoury and wholesome variety of winter squash. Like other winter squashes, acorn and butternut to name but a couple, pumpkins are of the genus cucurbita pepo and like all squashes are indigenous to the Americas. The word pumpkin, which can be used interchangeably with other winter squashes but which is most commonly used to refer to the large, orange, ridged fruit vegetables we’ve all come to know and love, comes from the greek pepon, meaning “large melon”. The french adapted the Greek word to pompon, and the English to pumpion. British colonists to North America finally settled on pumpkin, and the name holds to this day.
Pumpkin pie is a favourite preparation of this hearty winter squash and has its roots in the early days of North American colonisation. Pumpkin, like other squashes, was a staple in the diets of many indigenous peoples throughout North America. Typically it was roasted over an open flame. Early settlers took to hollowing out whole pumpkins, filling them with milk, spices, and honey, and then slow roasting them in embers. Undoubtedly delicious as this must have been all but the most enterprising modern cooks opt to buy tins of pumpkin puree to make custard that can be baked in a pie. The more ambitious might even make their own puree by cooking down fresh pumpkin themselves. This does provide a more authentic and satisfying result, not only because of the sense of accomplishment and assurance of quality , but also because most commercially available pumpkin purees tend to be made from winter squashes other than the ones which most of us think of as pumpkins. This is not really false advertising because, as already mentioned above, the word pumpkin is, in fact, quite an encompassing term for a wide variety of squashes, albeit one which is colloquially used by most of us to describe that big orange one out of which we make Jack O’Lanterns once a year.
Aside from their use in holiday pies and as demonic lawn ornaments pumpkins are sought after and used by home cooks and top chefs alike. They can be used anywhere you would use another winter squash; pureed and baked into muffins and loaves, in soups, roasted alone or as part of a vegetable medley, for example. Even the seeds and leaves are used. Pumpkin seeds roasted with your favourite seasonings make an excellent healthy snack. You can buy the seeds raw almost anywhere that sells bulk food items, or simply clean the seeds you scoop out of your Jack O’Lantern. The leaves can be added to salads, soups, or lightly steamed and stuffed. Many fine restaurants feature ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, and it is especially fine in curry flavoured soup scented with spices such as cardamom, coriander, cumin, and nutmeg. Not only delicious, pumpkins contain many important nutrients, not least of which being beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant in its own right and a raw form vitamin A, and what gives pumpkins, carrots, and other colourful fruits and vegetables their distinctive orange colouring. Pumpkins are also a good source of dietary fibre, iron, magnesium, and potassium.
If the prospect of tackling an entire pumpkin on a regular basis seems daunting, consider buying a couple at a time and processing them on a free day. Entice friends, family, neighbours, members of your community to lend a hand and share in the fruits of your collective labours. Seeds can be roasted and kept indefinitely in a cool, dry place. The flesh can be chopped or pureed and frozen for future use. Far too nutritious and versatile to be reserved solely for Thanksgiving and Halloween pumpkins deserve to be added to your culinary repertoire. As a winter squash indigenous to this part of the world they keep exceptionally well and can be purchased whole, raw, and local most of the year. A proud part of our Canadian heritage, steeped in mythology, healthful, tasty, and versatile this week’s feature deserves a regular place in your larder and on your table.