(This feature appeared in today's Times Leader.)
By GLYNIS VALENTI Times Leader Staff Writer
Pumpkin season arrived right around the time of the fall equinox, just as the leaves began to turn colors other than green. Or it arrived September 1, the day McDonald’s released its Pumpkin Spice Latte drink (Starbucks released theirs on September 2.) Either way pumpkins mean fall, and fall means pumpkins—and lots of them.
According to information from Iowa State University, pumpkin sales in the United States rose 16 percent from 2011 to 2012, meaning growers sold 1,388,800,000 pounds worth of pumpkin in 2012, a total value of nearly $149 million. Ohio is number three in pumpkin production behind California and top producer Illinois. In fact, 90 percent of America’s crop grows within 90 miles of Peoria, close to the Libby’s pumpkin processing plant. More than 85 percent of the world’s canned pumpkin comes from this plant.
In October pumpkins are all around in a wide range of shapes and sizes. While all varieties are packed with nutritional benefits, some pumpkins are grown and suited for different uses. Pumpkin is a vegetable, a member of the Cucurbitaceae family of vine plants like squash, cucumbers and cantaloupes. The most familiar varieties have orange or yellow skins, but they can be white, brown, red, grey or green.
The smallest pumpkins weigh only a few ounces and are used for decoration. The largest, or “giant,” varieties are grown mainly for competitions like the King Pumpkin contest at the Barnesville Pumpkin Festival. Many weigh several hundred pounds, but this year’s 1,514 pound winner was a festival record-breaker. The other hundreds of varieties of cooking, processing and carving pumpkins are in the middle of these extremes, and there are some particulars about choosing them.
All pumpkins are squash, the word “squash” coming from an Algonquin word, “askutasquash,” meaning “eaten green or unripe.” The earliest pumpkin eaters did harvest them early and prepare them like zucchini and other squashes.
One of the oldest known pumpkins is the cushaw, Cucurbitaceae argyrosperma, which originated in Mexico and was used 7,000 years ago. The cushaw’s elongated shape and crooked neck set it apart from the pumpkin pack, as does its light to whitish green color with mottled green stripes. Also called the green-striped cushaw and Hopi cushaw, it’s a heat-hardy, pest-resistant plant grown in desert areas of America’s southwest and can be stored up to four months. Early growers not only ate the plant for sustenance, but used it medicinally to treat burns and skin conditions like eczema, as well as to rid the body of intestinal worms and parasites. Outside of the southwest, southern and Appalachian cuisine make the most use of the moist, fibrous yellow flesh today for pies, pastries and Tennessee cushaw butter, but its availability is limited in other areas.
Out perusing pumpkins? There are two heirloom varieties that aficionados may enjoy hunting down. The first is the cheese pumpkin, C. moschata, a large, tan squash named for its shape’s likeness to a cheese wheel. Of West Indian origin, it was known to be in Europe during the 1500s and was cultivated on American soil before the American Revolution. It appeared in an 1815 seed catalog here and was also known as the Landreth Cheese and Mammoth Cheese pumpkins. Today’s Buff Pie pumpkin is believed to be the same variety.
The second, the Quaker Pie pumpkin, is rare but still around. A New York seed catalog advertised this white-skinned, white-flesh globe, which averages about 8 inches in diameter, but weighs around 10 pounds. The vines grow to 15 feet long and have very large flowers. In cooking, this variety has a coconut flavor.
Pumpkin—real pumpkin, not the canned pie mix—is a rich source of the antioxidant beta-carotene. One cup of cooked, drained flesh is only 49 calories and yields 2 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 12 grams of carbohydrates. It contains a wealth of minerals: calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc. But the beta-carotene converts to Vitamin A which is vital for skin, mucous membranes and eye health and fights age-related macular disease. Studies are indicating that Vitamin A also helps the body resist lung and oral cavity cancers. Pumpkin seeds, too, are a heart-healthy snack providing dietary fiber and mono-unsaturated fatty acids, protein, iron, niacin, selenium, zinc and the amino acid tryptophan.
Finding cooking pumpkins is easy this time of year. Here are a few pointers for finding the tastiest. Cooking pumpkins are smaller, between 4 and 8 pounds. The flesh is dense, sweet and smooth. Look for names like “Sugar Baby,” “Baby Pam,” “New England Pie,” and “Autumn Gold.” Ripe pumpkins make a hollow sound when tapped. Avoid those that are cut or bruised because of the risk of bacteria getting inside. They can be stored for several weeks at room temperature in a cool, well-ventilated area.
When cutting, remove the stem end first. Cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise and remove the webbing and seeds. Slice the halves, and cut the flesh into cubes. Not just for pie, pumpkin is used in stews, cookies, pancakes, breads, casseroles, sauces, ice cream, cheesecake, ravioli filling and on its own as a side dish. It is often used interchangeably with winter squash, especially butternut.
Carving, or field, pumpkins are usually larger and grow in various shapes. It helps to have a carving design in mind before shopping. Elongated varieties lend themselves to faces or window designs. Plumper shapes are suited to the traditional “jack o’ lantern” face. Oddly shaped pumpkins may provide opportunities for creating funny or scary faces. Again, a hollow sound when tapped means a ripe pumpkin, but the skin should be firm, not soft or bruised. It should sit solid and level.
Assemble cutting and carving tools such as knives, saws, an ice cream scoop and dry erase markers or T-pins to draw or transfer the design. Professional pumpkin artists use a variety of power tools during the carving process. One suggests a drywall saw for the initial cuts, a jigsaw for smaller cuts, a rotary tool for the skin and an angle grinder for cleaning large areas.
Decide where the opening will be. If it’s the top, cut into the pumpkin on an angle to make a cone. Openings can also be cut into the back or the bottom, but make sure the pumpkin will sit safely. Remove the seeds and netting with an ice cream scoop, beginning at the top of the hole and progressively moving down through the pumpkin. Scrape the inside clean with the scoop or scraper tool, and try to scrape the flesh down on the inside to less than one inch in the design area to make carving easier.
To transfer a pattern, secure or draw the image on the prepared area. Follow the lines of the design with a sharp, pointed object such as a T-pin, nail or metal skewer, then dust the lines with baking soda or cornstarch. Mark the areas to be cut with a marker or crayon while peeling the pattern away. Start with the small sections to be removed. Gently follow the dots with a saw blade or small knife. Keep the design in mind while carving—whatever is lit in the design is what needs to be carved out. The professionals urge care and patience here not only for safety, but to not damage intricate areas in the design. Don’t slice or rush, removing the sections carefully by hand. Make sure the back area is scraped clean and flat so as not to create shadows when lit.
Pros suggest a light spritz of bathroom cleaner with bleach or soaking it overnight in a tub of water with a little bleach. The bleach will keep pests away, and the water will keep the pumpkin firm. A thin layer of petroleum jelly on the exposed edges will help retain the moisture and prolong the pumpkin’s life. Light it up with blinker or flicker bulbs, black light or a noise sensor that turns it on when someone walks by.
Back to the Pumpkin Spice Latte, or PSL, Starbucks has sold more than 200 million over its 10 years on the menu. A medium has 510 calories, 20 grams of fat and 62 grams of sugar. McDonald’s PSL has fewer calories at 440, but the same fat and sugar content. The non-fat versions still contain the sugar (as much an average candy bar) but fewer calories and far less fat.
The real kicker? There is no “pumpkin” in it. According to the Starbucks website, the PSL is an “espresso beverage that features freshly steamed milk, rich and creamy pumpkin-flavored sauce and warm seasonal spices such as cinnamon, ginger nutmeg and clove.” But America’s love of pumpkin shows no signs of slowing down, and in 2013 spent $308 million on various pumpkin-flavored products. What would the Great Pumpkin think about that?