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Pumpkin adds a touch of autumn to the menu

October 27, 2013
By ANITA?HANABURGH , The Leader Herald

I love pumpkins. I love pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin muffins and jack-o'-lanterns. I love that pumpkin pulp has a light 50 calories per cup. It lights up your body with protein, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamin C and B, and looks great when you light one up from the inside. This bright fall baby is beautiful on your front steps and is beautiful for your body.

Pumpkin comes from the greek word pepon, meanning "large melon," eventually adapted by the American colonists as "pumpkin."

Pumpkins have been around more than 5,000 years. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of the processed pumpkins in the United States are grown in Illinois. Go figure!

Pumpkins were an early staple for the American colonists, but today more pumpkins are turned into holiday decorations than are used for food. The fruit isn't seen much on dining tables. How did this happen? There are as many stories associated with the decorative pumpkin use as these are pumpkins.

Legend has it that the Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack-o'-lanterns to North America. Before their arrival, they used gourds or squashes carved with faces as lanterns to scare away the ghosts or souls said to wander around before All Saints Day or on All Hallows Eve. Later, the immigrants used the large and available pumpkin for these lanterns.

Where did the term jack-o'-lantern come from? According to legend, the jack-o'-lantern took its name from a roguish Irishman known as Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil into promising he wouldn't end up going to hell for his sins. When Jack died, he found out he had been barred from heaven, too, so he asked the devil to let him in. The Devil, surprisingly, said "no," keeping his promise, thus dooming Jack to wander the Earth with only a flame of hellfire to light his way. From then on, he was known as Jack O'Lantern.

Although jack-o'-lanterns are popular, pie is still king in my house. The origin of pumpkin pie occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey. The pumpkin was then baked in hot ashes. Yum!

Sometimes I make my pie from scratch; sometimes I don't.

The quality of the canned pumpkins is excellent, but the fresh pumpkin flavor can't be beat. I started making my pumpkins puree from scratch when a kind farmer dropped off a few dozen pie pumpkins for my cooking class at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. There are basically three methods for extracting the pulp from the skin: baking/roasting in the oven, steaming and microwaving. That day of using up the pumpkins, we tried them all.

I like microwaving the best it's easy, clean and energy efficient. Keep the pie pumpkin whole, halved or quartered. I You can slice it up more but it takes longer and longer to peel. For whole, I slice off the "hat" like when you are carving it, scrape it out with a metal spoon (the strainer in the kitchen sink works great). Be sure to get all the strings, as no one likes to eat them. I then stab jack all over with a sharp knife. If you halve the pumpkin or quarter the pumpkin, clean it out as above, slice and microwave it, turning it twice. You can put in a bowl and cover gently.

The length of time to cook depends on the power of your microwave and the size of the pumpkin. In my small microwave, I have no high setting, so it takes about 45 minutes for a whole pumpkin, turning it twice. The pumpkin is cooked when a fork can easily go into it. After cooling a bit, the skin will peel right off. If not, you can hold the pumpkin with a fork and easily slide a knife under the skin.

I always put the pulp through the food processor. If you want everyone to know you made it from fresh pumpkin, you can just mash and keep it rough. If the pumpkin is watery, it can be drained overnight before processing, or you can "cook it down" to the desired texture, like canned. In one pumpkin, you will get enough pulp for one or two pies.

Can I use my decorative pumpkin for pies? Well, yes. Should you? Well, no. Pumpkins grown for pies are small, dark in color, have denser, sweeter and more flavorful pulp. For your time and effort, buy the pie pumpkins. Carving pumpkins are watery and have little or no flavor. There are some 50 varieties of pumpkins, so if you are a novice, trust the farm or the store as to what are pie pumpkins.

This is my favorite pumpkin pie recipe. I have adjusted it over the years. Do you have to use evaporated milk? No. You can use half-and-half, heavy cream, even rice milk. Experiment. For example, if using skim milk, maybe add another egg.

Harvest Pumpkin Pie

1 unbaked pie shell

1 cup to 2 cups pumpkin, squash, canned or fresh

1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

2 tablespoons molasses or honey

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk

Combine pumpkin, sugar, salt, spice and molasses. Add beaten egg and milk and mix thoroughly. Pour into an unbaked pie shell (I use a glass pan) and bake in a an hot oven at 425 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes until a knife inserted comes out clean. Cool on a rack.

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