What to do with Jack-o…

1 Nov

By Chris Garbutt

It was a lousy weekend, but in amongst all the work I had to do, I tried to scrounge an adequate pumpkin to carve for Halloween. No luck. And it’s a shame because pumpkin carving is a long and proud tradition in my family, going at least back to my grandfather. Sadly, all my neighbours had plucked the best ones, some of them starting their collections as early as mid-September. Further evidence that Halloween rivals Christmas as a holiday – you can’t wait until the last minute (or even a few days before) to do your shopping, or else you’re out of luck.

So no pumpkin for me, and no chance to address the annual question – can you (and should you) cook your jack-o-lantern? Out in foodie land, the jury is still out. Check out these sites:

www.frugalfun.com/f7.html
www.preparedpantry.com/vol3iss10-5.htm
southerncuisine.suite101.com/article.cfm/fresh_pumpkin_puree_for_recipes
www.slashfood.com/2006/10/22/picking-the-perfect-pumpkin/

For me, though, the answer is unequivocally yes. I wouldn’t make a pie out of it, but as a secondary ingredient, it’s excellent. The flavour is very mild and the texture is smooth. At least that’s been my experience. Food writers say jack-o-lantern pumpkin flesh is too stringy, but I’ve made curried pumpkin soup with it, and even added it to chili (it softens the acidity of the tomatoes, and gives a slightly creamy texture, although you can’t taste any pumpkin at all).

Of course, preparing a large pumpkin for cooking is labour-intensive and makes you wonder whether it’s worth it. First, you have to make sure that you have scooped out all the seeds and the soft, stringy gunk on the inside. You can save the seeds and roast them, if you like, but I find those seeds not worth the effort. Most of them aren’t fat enough to really enjoy. Make sure you cut out any discoloured or black spots, or any parts that are sagging, which usually happens around the holes you cut during carving.

You could cut it into chunks and freeze it in an airtight bag, of course, but you’re just putting off the hard work that way. The first couple of times, I cut poor little jack-o into large hunks, and baked them at a low heat (250F, if I recall correctly) until soft. This softened the pumpkin and got the water out – so much water, in fact, that the cookie sheet I used was filled almost to overflowing. Taking the pumpkin slabs out of the oven was tricky and dangerous work. Once I’d dumped the water, though, it was pretty easy to remove the skin and scoop the pumpkin into freezer bags.

It wasn’t a perfect process. There was all that hot water to carefully balance, it was time consuming, and the oven dried out the edges.

I thought there must be a better way, so two years ago, I tried peeling the pumpkin first with a large chef’s knife, a slow and imprecise job. I cut what was left into large cubes and threw them all into a large stockpot. Over low heat, I cooked the pumpkin very slowly. Once it was all soft, I removed batches into a sieve and pressed. This got rid of almost all of that excess water, and made it ready for freezing. Voilà!

It was not to be this year, and it’s frustrating to see all those beautiful pumpkins in the neighbourhood get smashed and go straight into the garbage. But next year, I’ll go early for my multi-purpose orange friend. Maybe do some Christmas shopping while I’m at it.

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