While pumpkins are most often associated with holiday pies, don’t underestimate this favorite of the squash and gourd family. Not only is the mighty pumpkin delicious, but it is also quite the multi-tasker.
“Pumpkins are incredibly versatile. They can be used in virtually any application,” says Chef Joseph Brown, culinary chair at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Raleigh – Durham, a campus of South University. From sweet to savory, desserts to dinners, Brown and Chef Arthur Inzinga, culinary instructor at The International Culinary School at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, offer tips and ideas for making the most of your pumpkins.
Pumpkin can be added to a variety of dishes to provide textural elements as well as flavor. “When pumpkin is cooked down it is very similar to mashed potatoes, but more sweet and flavorful,” says Brown. “It brings a sweetness to the table, which is its most unique aspect.” He adds that anywhere a potato is being cut up and cooked, pumpkin would be a good addition and/or substitution.
Pureed pumpkin can be added to a variety of sauces and soups, and according to Inzinga, “pumpkin is used a lot in conjunction with pasta.” He recommends using it as a filling in gnocchi: “Typically, gnocchi is made with potato puree. You can substitute pumpkin puree.” Brown also notes it can be used as a filling for ravioli.
Adding the bold flavor of pumpkin to a variety of dishes can be achieved with some simple substitutions. Pumpkin chili can be created by augmenting some of the stock and tomato with pureed pumpkin. “This brings a richness to the chili. The pumpkin is going to be as much a textural component as it is a flavorful item,” says Brown. He also adds that pumpkin and tomato go together beautifully. This can be seen in autumn or pumpkin pizza, where the pumpkin becomes part of the sauce. Brown likes to top his pumpkin pizza with barbequed chicken. Inzinga recommends juicing some of the pumpkin pulp and using it as the cooking liquid for risotto or mixing equal parts pureed pumpkin to mashed potatoes. “It can be used as an ingredient in pancakes and waffles to replace some of the liquid and add flavor,” he says.
Pumpkin can also take center stage in dishes such as pumpkin-based bread puddings and ice creams and pumpkin butter. Inzinga says pumpkin butter is much like apple butter and can be created by adding pumpkin pie spices and cooking the pumpkin down until it is a spreadable consistency. He also recommends pumpkin/apple smoothies made with pureed pumpkin, apple juice and a bit of yogurt.
Enjoy the full flavor of the pumpkin by dicing and roasting with other root vegetables, sauteing it to bring out its natural flavors or even putting it on the grill. Brown says the slow heat of the grill brings out natural sugars, removes moisture and condenses the flavor.
Don’t forget that the flesh isn’t the only part of the pumpkin that can be used. The seeds can be roasted and used as a garnish on breads, muffins or on pumpkin soup; added to homemade granola; or pureed into sauces and pesto. According to Inzinga, the flower blossoms can be battered and fried or stuffed and baked. Both chefs even recommend using hollowed-out pumpkins as bowls and tureens for chili or soup.
“It’s important for people to realize that when you go pumpkin picking, those pumpkins are grown for their size and shape, not necessarily flavor,” says Brown. The large pumpkins are less sweet. He says there are hundreds of varieties of pumpkins, and you can get more sweetness and flavor if you are more selective. He recommends allaboutpumpkins.com as a reference for the characteristics of different types of pumpkins.
Tips for roasting a pumpkin:
To roast a pumpkin, Brown recommends roasting it at 350 to 375 F for a medium-length roasting time. The flesh will brown a bit. For a more concentrated flavor, roast at 300 F for a longer period of time and bump the temperature up to 425 F for the last 15 to 20 minutes. Pumpkins are a lot like potatoes – you can tell if they are done by touch. They will get softer the longer they cook.