When it comes to fall time, pumpkins are about as American as it gets.
But according to Chris Royster, the chef de cuisine at Boulder’s Flagstaff House, many of us don’t even know what they taste like.
Since we eat them almost exclusively in pumpkin pie, many people confuse the taste of pumpkin with that of pumpkin spice. Pumpkin spice is somewhat of a misnomer — while it plays a prominent role in pumpkin pie it contains no pumpkin or pumpkin flavor.
“When they taste, for instance, a roasted pumpkin with a little bit of butter, salt and pepper, that flavor isn’t what people associate with pumpkin,” Royster says. “But that’s kind of what I like to do.”
Even the most common canned variety looks and tastes more like a butternut squash than an ordinary pumpkin.
The real tragedy isn’t just that one of America’s most iconic native foods is almost completely unrepresented in our cuisine — it’s that there are so many applications we could be using it for and, for the most part, are not.
When asked about pumpkin’s other applications, Royster and The Kitchen Bistro’s Dave Engel hardly knew where to start. Over the course of our conversations, they rattled off suggestions including seeds, salads, soups, dressings, curries, ravioli, lasagna, risotto, chili, hummus, sauces, pancakes, waffles and brittles, not to mention classics like pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread.
“It’s pretty versatile,” Engel says. “There really is the idea out there that you can’t utilize it as you would other winter squashes out there, but that isn’t the case.”
Before you get started cooking with pumpkin, there are a few things you’ll want to know about pumpkin selection. Avoid big, jack-o’-lantern style pumpkins, as they were built for size, not taste. Opt instead for a medium-sized one.
Specifically, you’re looking for a firm pumpkin without any soft spots. Avoid discoloration if possible. The pumpkin should feel heavy for its size — a good indicator of ripeness.
As far as pumpkin-type goes, it depends on what you’re going to use it for. There are so many types available for cooking that your best bet may be to ask. That said, it’s hard to go wrong with anything labeled “sugar pumpkin” or “pie pumpkin.”
Roasted pumpkin and
bitter green salad
One of the most straightforward uses for pumpkin is in salad. Because of the ease of this recipe, I’m going to provide recommendations rather than a strict list of ingredients. The directions will deal with roasting the pumpkin only. The rest is up to you — feel free to get creative.
For four servings or less, you’ll need only a single, small pumpkin. Bitter greens (arugula, watercress, radicchio) are ideal because they’ll provide a contrast to the roasted pumpkin’s sweetness. I recommend topping it with a light balsamic vinaigrette and pine nuts. Other seasonal fruit, apples for instance, pair well with pumpkins too. Just remember to keep it light — the pumpkin and its natural flavor is the main event here.
Preheat your oven to 400°F, gut the pumpkin, and scrape out the remaining seeds and innards. Cut the flesh into cubes or wedges. Butter lightly and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. After they’ve cooled, remove the skin and they’re ready for use in your salad. You may be surprised to find flavors completely outside the realm of your expectations.
This next recipe is just a small step up on the difficulty ladder. Since it doesn’t require too much pumpkin, you might be best off buying your puree at the store. You can make your own, but you’ll need a food processor or blender. The sweetness and ease of this recipe makes it great for kids. This recipe makes four or five pancakes.
1 1/2 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons pumpkin spice (optional)
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup milk
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
If you’re making your own pumpkin puree, you’ll want to roast your pumpkin (this process described in the previous recipe), blend well and strain.
Mix the dry ingredients together (for a pumpkin-pie taste, include pumpkin spice). Do the same for the wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Then combine the two. Oil a frying pan or griddle and bring it to medium-high heat. Add a pancake’s worth of batter and cook until the bottom is golden brown, then flip and repeat. Serve hot with butter and maple syrup.
Pumpkin Bechamel Lasagna
This is a vegetarian lasagna with a pumpkin bechamel sauce replacing the traditional tomato sauce. It serves six to eight people, and it’s a lot easier than it sounds.
1 small-medium sized pumpkin (or a can of puree)
1/2 cup flour
3/4 stick of butter
5 cups milk
1 tablespoon nutmeg
16 oz lasagna sheets
1 1/2 cups ricotta
1 1/2 cups mozzarella
1/2 cup grated parmesan
8 oz mushrooms
2 cups spinach
If you’re using canned pumpkin, skip to the next paragraph. If not, you’ll need to make your own pumpkin puree. Follow the steps in the salad recipe to roast your pumpkin, and puree it with a blender or food processor.
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Melt butter. Over medium heat, add flour and whisk until smooth. Then add milk, 1 cup at a time, while continuing to whisk, making sure to smooth out any clumps. Add the pumpkin puree, stir. Continue to simmer for 10 minutes — the sauce should be fairly thick. Add a tablespoon of nutmeg and salt to taste. Remove from heat.
Oil pan and cook chopped mushrooms, onions and garlic over medium heat. When tender, add spinach and stir for a minute or so. Add salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
Boil lasagna sheets until al dente. Follow directions on packaging.
Coat the bottom of a 9” by 13” baking dish with a layer of sauce. Add a layer of pasta, followed by mozzarella and ricotta, then vegetables, then sauce. Repeat. Top the final pasta layer with the remaining sauce and Parmesan cheese.
Cover and bake at 375°F for 45 minutes. Let it cool and serve.
In Boulder, we’re lucky enough to have access to quality, locally grown, organic pumpkins. While ordinary, store-bought pumpkins are available too, you might consider tasting the difference for yourself. Royster and Engel recommend Boulder’s Cure Organic Farm and Munson Farms, respectively. Both are located at 75th and Valmont, just east of Boulder, and have stands at Boulder’s biweekly farmers’ markets.
While Engel buys upwards of 1,000 pounds of pumpkins from Munson Farms each year for use at the Kitchen, these farms are just as great for picking up a single pumpkin or two.
The important thing, Engel says, is not to be intimidated. Experiment, have fun and enjoy the forgotten taste of this nostalgic comfort food.