Welcome to the season of the pumpkin!

Courtesy photo

The humble and versatile pumpkin is native to North America and has been a fall favorite for a very long time. The oldest evidence of pumpkin-related seeds were found in Mexico and date between 7,000 and 5,500 BCE. Pumpkins are a warm-weather squash and grow well in the Black Hills, as long as gardeners pay attention to number of frost-free days needed for the variety they choose. 

Native Americans shared many varieties of squash with European settlers and pumpkins were an early export to France. From there, they were introduced to Tudor England and the flesh of the “pompion” was quickly accepted as pie filler and pumpkin pie recipes were published in cookbooks as early as 1675. 

Today, squash and pumpkins are grown all over the world and come in a variety of colors: green, yellow, red, white, blue, multicolored and more. They can be tiny, squat, tall, short, round, pear-shaped and some so big they take a forklift to move. Some pumpkins are better for carving, some are better for eating and some are better for display.

Carving pumpkins (or jack-o-lantern pumpkins) tend to have pale orange flesh, and not very much of it. That makes it easy to carve through the flesh. Jack-o’-lantern pumpkins were bred to have upright straight walls, to be hollow, and to stand up to being carved. They were not bred for eating and taste bland and a little bitter. You can cook a jack-o’-lantern type pumpkin, but the flesh will be watery and stringy. 

Pie pumpkins tend to be smaller than carving pumpkins but the biggest difference is what is inside the pumpkin. Pie pumpkins have a darker orange, dense flesh that is also quite thick. When you pick up a pie pumpkin, it should feel heavy for the size. They also tend to have a sweeter, richer flavor than a carving pumpkin.

Most pie pumpkins you find in stores are sugar pumpkins and they are perfect for pies or other baking. Other varieties such as Cinderella or Pink Banana Squash are also good for baking in pies, cookies and bars, or other pumpkin delights such as soup, smoothies, and ice cream. Pumpkin can be baked, roasted, steamed or boiled.

Pumpkin pie is a favorite dessert for fall and winter holidays. This year, why not try baking a fresh sugar-pumpkin pie? You’ll find it gives you a deeper, more interesting flavor and you’ll also have pumpkin seeds for roasting! A 5-pound pumpkin will make about two 9-inch pies. In recipes, you can exchange 2 cups pumpkin pulp purée from a sugar pumpkin for one 15-ounce can of pumpkin purée.

To make pumpkin purée from scratch, cut a medium-small sugar pumpkin in half. Scrape out the insides (reserving the pumpkins seeds to roast) and discard. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Place the pumpkin halves cut side down on the lined baking sheet and bake at 350°F for about an hour to an hour and a half, or until a fork can easily pierce them. Don’t worry if the edges are browned. The natural sugar caramelizes and give it a richer, more complex, flavor. When it is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh. It’s that easy!

The roasted pumpkin can be used as is, or pureed into a smoother consistency by simply scooping the pumpkin into a high-speed blender or food processor. Homemade pumpkin puree is naturally looser and contains more liquid than store-bought canned pumpkin puree. This may affect baked goods, especially custard baked goods such as pumpkin pie. You can thicken to your desired consistency by straining the pumpkin puree in a sieve lined with cheesecloth over a bowl and discard the liquid that gathers in the bowl. 

No other fruit or vegetable says ‘harvest season’ like our favorite orange gourd. From fairy tales and Halloween displays to the Thanksgiving table, the pumpkin has played an important role in our cultural and gastronomical past. For assistance with horticultural questions you can email the Northern Hills Master Gardeners at northernhillsmastergardeners@yahoo.com. You can also find us on Facebook or at the Spearfish farmers market in the summer.

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