Tangled like a pumpkin vine
As soon as you begin exploring the names and types of fruits or vegetables you often find things aren’t as clear as you would first suspect, one person’s pumpkin becomes another’s winter squash. But the facts we can be certain of are that pumpkins are a member of the cucurbitacea family, also known as gourds, which includes cucumbers, melons, zucchini and many other inedibles. Pumpkins are native to North America, botanically are a fruit and can fall under the category of squash. If you were American, you’d then be dividing your squash into winter and summer varieties as, over there, when they refer to a pumpkin they are talking about one specific type, the classic looking large pumpkin perfect for carving jack-o-lanterns for Halloween. Here in Australia, though, the name pumpkin refers to a wide range of specimens.
Look deeper into the names of particular varieties and it all becomes even more confusing. This is in part due to the fact that pumpkins are slightly incestuous and interbreed happily with most members of their family causing slight variants to pop up everywhere. Add this to cultural differences and you may find yourself slightly bewildered by specifics.
The golden nugget
The diversity found within this plant type is huge, but there are a few fairly common and widely used specimens. There’s butternut squash, a very orange and dry-fleshed variety with a thin skin that seems to work well as an all-rounder. One of the thicker-skinned types is the Queensland blue, which also has dry flesh but a more robust and almost slightly bitter flavour, which I find appealing. Spaghetti squash need a mention merely for their looks, when steamed whole they open to reveal impressive pasta-like strands, sadly though, the flavour is a little lacking and they’re on the watery side. Then there is the golden nugget, a smallish pumpkin and prolific grower; it’s not only nutty and delicious but has the most excellent name. But my favourite is the jap or kent, it has the perfect balance of sweet, robust and bitter flavours. The skin is excellent and chewy when roasted and it’s a very fine pumpkin to use dipped in a tempura batter and fried.
Like potatoes, there are many types of pumpkins that are appropriate for different recipes. If you have the time, it’s an interesting world to explore and discover the amazing array of flavours and textures.
In the pumpkin patch
Pumpkin plants grow profusely, becoming long vines that either snake along the ground or can be trained to grow up a trellis. They are best planted in spring and take about six months to grow, thus becoming fully mature and ready for harvesting in autumn. As the vine grows, you can pinch off its tips; this not only stunts its length but also diverts all the plant’s energy into the fruit. These tips, considered a delicacy in Italy known as cime di zucca, are delicious deep-fried in batter or cooked as you would a spring green.
Once fully matured, pumpkins can be either picked and eaten straight from the vine or left to be ‘cured’. Curing is a technique used for pumpkins that dries out the fruit allowing them to be stored for long periods of time. One of the traditional ways to do this is to leave the pumpkins in the paddock, still attached to the plant as it dies off, until the first frost. This is said to give them an extra sweetness and the cold air helps them dry out.
One of the main differences you’ll find is that when you are using pumpkins in cooking straight from the vine, they will be much more watery whereas cured pumpkins are drier and, like the particular variety that you use, this will have an effect on the recipe. Do you suddenly feel there’s a whole new world of things to consider when faced with buying a pumpkin?
Seeds, stalks, leaves and flowers
Pumpkin vines are one of those great plants that offer the whole of themselves to be used in cooking. The leaves and stalks can be prepared and used as you would any other leafy green vegetable. Although, when raw they seem furry and unappetising they can be blanched or fried and are often used in Chinese soups. They have a mild-green, slightly sweet flavour.
The seeds, once dried, roasted and seasoned, are a popular snack. I particularly like them seasoned with a little chilli. Commonly referred to as pepitas they have a high oil content, which is on one-hand bad because they can turn rancid fairly quickly, but on the other hand, good, as they produce a beautifully thick, dark-green oil. This oil has a strong and nutty flavour that is best used sparingly and raw with food. The seeds, used raw and blended can also be used as a thickening agent.
The flowers are much like those of the more commonly used zucchini, and work in much the same way. They’re delicious stuffed and deep-fried or gently blanched and tossed through salads or pastas.
Already the plant has so many uses and that’s all before you even consider the flesh, which can be used in both sweet and savoury preparations. It’s delicious when roasted and is perhaps most ubiquitously used to make pumpkin soup which, when made properly, can be a delightful meal.
Pumpkins are very versatile; they work well with both hard and soft herbs and can be matched to both sweet and hot spices. They’re fond of dairy, especially butter, but also work well in Asian cooking with fragrant coconut milk. One of the main rules I apply when cooking with pumpkin is making sure to use the right amount of salt. This helps to balance the inherent sweetness of pumpkin and allows the savoury flavours to shine. It does seem that pumpkins are fairly happy playing with most flavours and being cooked in many various ways.
Cook with pumpkin
Photography, styling and food preparation by China Squirrel. Pumpkins from Moonacres Farm.
View previous The Seasonal Cook columns and recipes.