The story of the pumpkin is truly a transcontinental tale. How we view and eat pumpkins today is a result of centuries of history. The word “pumpkin” comes from the Greek word “Pepon,” or “large pumpkin.” That’s right, pumpkins and squashes are related to melons and cucumbers.
Around 5500 B.C.E. Pumpkins originated in Central America. Various American Indian tribes grew pumpkins and other squashes in small mounds with beans and corn, allowing the vines and roots to wrap around and sustain one another (known as the Three Sisters). They stored the thick-shelled gourds throughout the winter months, and sometimes dried the rind to eat or use for weaving mats. The pumpkin was cooked into stews, breads, cakes, and soups.
European settlers, starting in the late 15th century, were introduced to pumpkins by the American Indians, and started to grow them in the New World. They also brought seeds to Europe, Africa, and Asia, where the vegetable’s popularity spread. Ever wonder how Cinderella possibly got a pumpkin carriage of all things? Thank these early trade routes. The gourds became quite popular in French cuisine starting in the late 16th century, and were grown on farms throughout the region.
By the way, I always chuckle when contemporary breweries and stores market pumpkin beer and ale as something innovative and new…needless to say the Pilgrims were way ahead of them!
So what about Jack-O-Lanterns?
The first Jack-O-Lanterns were created by the early Celts in Ireland, and referred to beacons of light in the marshes as described in the folktale “Stingy Jack.” In the story, Jack cheats the Devil, and as punishment is forced to wander the Earth with only a coal, which he places inside a turnip. Irish locals carved scary faces and shapes into turnips and potatoes, nestled a candle inside, and placed them near their windows to scare away evil spirits. When Irish immigrants came to America in the 1800s, they discovered that pumpkins were much easier to find and carve than turnips.
1819 Washington Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a chilling book fearuring a headless horseman, which may have helped increase the popularity of Jack-O-Lanterns.
For further reading:
Smith, Andrew. “Pumpkins.” In The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, ed. Andrew Smith, 483-484. New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Tuleja, Tad. “Pumpkins.” In Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetable, ed. David Scofield Wilson and Angus Kress Gillespie, 142-165. Nashville, University of Tennessee Press, 1999.
The History Channel. “Pumpkins.” http://www.history.com/topics/pumpkin-facts; http://www.history.com/topics/jack-olantern-history
Pumpkin is one of the most versatile vegetables out there. If you want savory, soups, casseroles, and pastas are all safe bets. If you are like me, you also may enjoy pumpkin’s sweeter applications in pies, cakes, cookies, pancakes, and oatmeal. The possibilities are truly endless, and I am always making up new excuses to eat pumpkin.
While absolutely gorgeous to look at (see my awesome whale pumpkin above) and yield decent quantities of seeds for roasting, Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins are not well-suited for cooking. For our purposes, I recommend roasting and pureeing your own pie pumpkins (http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Bake-a-Fresh-Pumpkin-for-pie-etc/ or using canned.
I’m going to start you off with two of my favorites with the promise of more to come shortly. Check back often!
Whole wheat pasta with pumpkin sauce and vegetables of your choice
This is a good go-to during the week after I get home from work because it is quick to prepare, healthy, and very forgiving. This is a serving for one, so increase quantity as needed.
2 oz (2/3 cup dry pasta) per person, I recommend whole wheat penne
1 cup vegetables (I usually go with halved cherry tomatoes and mushrooms, spinach, or asparagus tips)
½ cup pureed pumpkin
¼ cup light sour cream
¼ cup water or broth
1 clove garlic, minced or diced
A dash of red wine
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp dried thyme or one sprig chopped fresh
Salt and black pepper to taste
Grated parmesan, goat cheese crumbles, or pecans (optional)
Prepare pasta according to package. Meanwhile, chop desired veggies and sauté in large saucepan. Once cooked, slide veggies to one side of the pan or move onto plate. Heat garlic in saucepan. Add pumpkin, sour cream, thyme, and nutmeg. Keep heat on lowest setting to avoid splatter, and add more liquid if the consistency seems too thick. Add red wine and salt/black pepper. Continue to simmer for 5-10 minutes. Add drained pasta to sauce and mix in veggies. Sprinkle on optional toppings immediately before serving. And feel free to drink some of that red wine!
Iced Pumpkin Cookies
These are definitely more cake-y…almost scone like actually. I especially like serving them during Halloween because the drizzle kind of resembles cobwebs. Yields about 3 dozen cookies.
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup softened butter
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup pureed pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and salt. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar (usually takes a few minutes). Add pumpkin, egg, and vanilla, and continue to beat until fluffy. Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper, and drop cookies by the tablespoonful onto the sheets. Bake for 16-20 minutes, switching the top and bottom racks halfway through. Repeat until all dough used, or freeze leftover dough for up to a month.
2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Combine ingredients in a large bowl, beat until smooth. Use a fork or spatula to drizzle the icing onto the cooled cookies (I usually like the cookies up in rows on one of the paper-lined trays to make life easier). Allow glaze to harden before storing in airtight container or your stomach.