The Pumpkin Patch
It's a moment that every young child and many adults look forward to each yearpicking the best looking pumpkin out of a vast sea of orange. For some, the choice is easythey spot the squash with the right balance of size and character and can visualize their jack-o'-lantern coming to life. For others, it can take hours of scouring roadside stands, markets and "Pumpkinvilles" for the right canvas. To help with the process of picking this year, FoodFit turned to Jim Huyett, owner of Sunnyside Farm and Orchards in Charles Town, WV, and pumpkin harvester extraordinaire.
For starters, Jim informed us that pumpkins should be harvested before the first frost, but not too early. The difference between a carving pumpkin for jack-o'-lanterns and one that you'd use for making pies and other fall dishes isn't just size. Different varieties are grown for different uses. Carving pumpkins contain too much moisture to be tasty when cooked, while cooking pumpkins are denser and fleshierperfect for pies, but not for goblin faces.
Whatever the use, look for a pumpkin that sits flat, is free of bruises, is nice and round and has a deep, pretty orange color. The stem, also known as the handle, is very important. It should be dark green, indicating that the pumpkin is fresh and hasn't been stored for too long. You shouldn't pick a pumpkin up by the handle, as this can damage it and shorten its life.
These days, more people are painting their pumpkins to enjoy them longer. A fresh pumpkin, if not carved, should last you at least a month and possibly outlast your Christmas tree. If you carve it, it should last for about ten days.
Jim grows carving pumpkins that come in different size ranges. The smallest weigh five to six pounds and are easy for little kids to pick up and handle. Most people buy the mid-sized 10 to15 pounders, and then there are the more ambitious 20 to 25-pound pumpkins for those who really like to make their jack-o'-lantern the pride of the neighborhood.
Varieties of carving pumpkins include Howden Field, Magic Lantern, Connecticut Field and Spookiealso a good pie pumpkin. Lumina and Casper, both white squashes, are perfect for those who'd rather paint their pumpkin. A French variety called Rouge Vif d'Estampes is a deep red-orange color with ridges and is shaped very much like the well-known pumpkin in Cinderella.
Jim says the best way to know if you're getting a good pumpkin is to know your grower. Ask him how the pumpkins have been handled and whether they've been washed before selling. If they've been thrown in the back of a truck without care, you can be sure that they've suffered bruising, which will shorten the life of your pumpkin. Pumpkins should be washed with a bleach and water solution after being picked, which helps to prevent the growth of bacteria on the pumpkin and therefore rotting. Pumpkins usually have one side that isn't as attractive as the others because they've been lying on one side, creating discoloration where they've come in contact with the ground and moisture. Jim avoids this by growing his pumpkins on a bed of straw.
Though you may prefer larger pumpkins for the family jack-o'-lantern, choose smaller pumpkins for cooking purposes. You only need a two and a half to three pound pumpkin to have enough flesh for a couple of pies. Good varieties for cooking include Small Sugar, Baby Pam and the French heirloom, Fairytale.
Don't be intimidated by the prospect of cooking a pumpkin instead of using canned for your recipes. This lovely orange vegetable is not only delicious, but extremely versatile and nutritious. Maybe turning into a pumpkin isn't so bad after all.
Try these pleasing pumpkin creations:
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin Squash Salad
Moroccan Tagine of Pumpkin and Lentils
Pumpkin Squash Risotto
Joyce Goldstein, Cucina Ebraica
Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Pepitas
Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora, Washington, DC
Pumpkin Crème Caramel
Kate Jansen, Firehook Bakery, Washington, DC
St. Supery Pumpkin Pie
Sunny Cristadoro, St. Supery Winery, Rutherford, CA