Pump It Up: The Culinary Art of Experimenting With Pumpkins

By Van Smith

First published in City Paper, Oct. 9, 2013.

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Stoop-sitting with pumpkin milk. (Photo: Van Smith)

As a boy, I never really made the connection that pumpkins were food. They were decorative fall accessories, the preparation of which involved festive, messy fun with big knives and spoons and Magic Markers. Though I loved pumpkin pie, I’d only seen the filling come out of cans or already in ready-to-heat-and-eat pies. Thankfully, as a man who likes to cook, over the years I made the connection.

Not being a pie-maker, my efforts have focused on dishes. Given my haphazard, experimental culinary style, which relies on educated guesses and eschews measurements and time-keeping, the results have been mixed. The experiments are worth sharing, especially with those who also are repulsed by precision cooking.

My first effort completely surprised me. A friend gave me a largish pumpkin, maybe 5 pounds, telling me it was specifically for cooking. Having removed the seeds and pulp, I stuffed it with a mixture of loose sausage, vegetables, and spices. After baking it at 350 degrees F until the skin turned a nice shade of ocher and the top started to sag a little, I took it out and let it rest—and found that I could pull the skin off in large shreds, leaving a perfect orb of bright-orange pumpkin meat. The presentation, resting atop a bed of wild rice on a large serving plate, was a mouthwatering prelude to its delectable destruction for plating.

Last year, though, I failed miserably. After baking a large leftover pumpkin from the Halloween-decorating rituals, I rudely discovered that not all pumpkins are worth cooking. While carving pumpkins are edible, their thin, easy-to-carve rinds bear less meat and meat that is stringier and more bitter than the one’s marketed as “pie pumpkins.” After preparing pumpkin soup in a hot kitchen, involving much messy labor with a Cuisinart, I ended up with a huge batch of bitter, yellowish glop that ended up in the trash can.

This year, though, I went wild with pie pumpkins. Without really meaning to, I ended up with more and more of them of assorted sizes over recent weeks and decided that if I didn’t start cooking with them, the house would be overrun. So I started winging it. The first round produced a Crockpot full of a pumpkin-lamb soup and a bowl of saged, salted pumpkin seeds to sprinkle on top.

The first step was to put one of two 32-ounce boxes of vegetable stock, a bunch of fresh sage, and two pieces of lemongrass into a Crockpot set on high. Then I scooped out the pumpkin, separating and cleaning the seeds of pulp. I coated the inside surface of the empty pumpkin with olive oil, put the cap back on, and put it in a 350-degree oven.

The potatoes and pumpkin seeds were each destined for their own baking pan. The purple and yellow fingerling potatoes were cut in small pieces, coated with olive oil, and baked in the oven until they had nice, crispy skins. The pumpkin seeds, also coated with olive oil, were baked to a light brown and transferred to a bowl lined with a paper towel to cool off, and later seasoned with a few pinches of ground sage and sea salt.

The ground lamb, a pound or two, was cooked in a skillet, and the juices poured off. Then I took the sage and lemongrass out of the Crockpot, turned it back to low, and added the potatoes, lamb, and some quartered radishes.

By this time, the pumpkin’s baked meat was soft. After letting it cool to the touch, I separated the skin from the meat, which was put through a Cuisinart in batches, adding stock from the other 32-ounce box of stock, transforming it into a smooth, pourable mixture that was added to the Crockpot and stirred thoroughly. After letting it cook on low for another hour or so, I added some salt to taste and ladled it into bowls, setting out the pumpkin seeds for diners to sprinkle on top.

Bottom line: It was good, filling, and nutritious.

But I still had a bunch of pumpkins laying around. I had learned how the American colonists cooked with pumpkins by filling them with milk, honey, and spices, and baking them in a fire. I’d use an oven instead, and I’d turn one of the big uncooked pumpkins into a samovar-like serving container, with a tap punched near the bottom. The little ones, with straws, would make drinking cups.

I hollowed out a big pumpkin, carved a little hole to insert a tap that a friend got from a brewer, and set it aside for later. Then I hollowed out another big one for baking, put in a large dollop of honey, about 6 ounces of coconut milk, and topped it off with whole milk. Then the ground spices were added: a few dashes each of cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, clove, and nutmeg. I did the same with the little pumpkin-cups with proportionately smaller amounts of ingredients, and all the pumpkins went into the oven—which soon made the whole house smell amazing.

When they were done—but not so done that the pumpkins started to sag—I took them out of the oven, removed the tops, stirred the liquid, and let the pumpkins cool. I transferred the pumpkin-milk from the big, cooked pumpkin to the other, uncooked big pumpkin with the tap.

Like chai, which this pumpkin milk resembles, it can be served hot or cold. Try to save and chill some of the pumpkin milk (not so easy if you add rum to it), because it can be blended with the leftover cooked pumpkins to make . . . pumpkin smoothies!

For this, cut up the already-cooked pumpkins in big pieces, put them in pans, and bake them a bit more, meat-side up, until the meat is soft. Chill the skinned meat and put it in a blender with carrots, apples, ice, and the spiced pumpkin milk. If I had the time, I’d have this for breakfast every day.

All of this is time-consuming and involves a hot kitchen. But, hey, most festive food does—and, even if you fail, at least you’ve used up some of those pumpkins cluttering up your countertop.

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