How to be the ‘pumpking’ this year!
When you buy a pumpkin for Halloween, are you thinking mainly about scooping out the seeds and stringy bits, carving it and displaying it in your window? Once the pumpkin has done its Halloween duty, you might dig out the flesh to make a pumpkin dish (as long as it hasn’t gone mouldy, which can happen surprisingly quickly).
But if you want that dish to be really tasty, it’s wise to think about the pumpkin or squash you buy. That’s because the ones we usually stick in the window with a wonky smile don’t tend to pack a flavour punch. “The pumpkins best for carving... don’t have much flesh to them”, says food historian Katherine Spiers, who is known for her podcast Smart Mouth. There are plenty of alternatives that do, though.
You’ll probably find at least a couple of varieties in the supermarket, and the names will indicate what you’re getting. ‘Carving pumpkins’ are the Halloween ones (and tend to be big – it’s worth checking they are also for eating). The ones you cook with? Well, they’re, erm, ‘cooking pumpkins’. That’s nice and simple. They’re the ones you’ll want for dishes such as pumpkin pie, pumpkin pasta and pumpkin risotto. But they’re often difficult to carve, thanks to their thick flesh – so you may need to buy two.
So can you cook a carving pumpkin?
If you’ve bought an edible carving pumpkin and don’t want to throw away the flesh, what’s your best option? “If you roast chunks of pumpkin, tossed in oil and seasoned, you drive off the water”, says food writer and cook Hattie Ellis. “Because they’re sweet, they need something salty. I often make dressings with a bit of fish sauce or soy sauce – and sage is a magic ingredient with pumpkin, it does something incredible to it”. Another good option is a soup, according to cookery writer Justine Pattison. “Pumpkin works really well when simmered with spices, coconut milk and stock”, she adds.
Whether you’re partial to a coffee shop trip for a pumpkin spice latte or horrified by pumpkin speciality products, there are plenty of limited-edition foods with pumpkin in the title in October. But don’t necessarily expect to find pumpkin in them.
Pumpkin spice is “a mix of the spices that go in pumpkin pie, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and cloves. It’s similar to what in the U.S. is called ‘chai’ – we generally use it to refer to a mix of warming spices and a little tea, rather than tea itself. In American coffee shops, a ‘dirty chai’ has long been shorthand for chai (the spice mix) with a shot of espresso... and I think a pumpkin spice latte is often just that, with a nicer name”, she continues.
But she adds that coffee chains now often put pumpkin purée in pumpkin spice drinks.
“Before Americans carved pumpkins, the Irish carved turnips. And the turnips are much scarier-looking”, says Spiers.
So when did pumpkins become the go-to carving produce? “A lot of Halloween traditions... derive from Irish folklore (and a bit of Scottish and Welsh) – specifically, a story about a man named Jack, who tricked the devil and then was forced to walk the dark for eternity, with only one bit of coal to light his way. At various points in time, these carved and lit vegetables were either for warding off demons, or were demons themselves. In the mid-1800s in the U.S., it became quite the thing for children to carve faces into pumpkins and hide them in places to scare people.”
Impress your friends with this pumpkin fact...
“The word ‘pumpkin’ probably derives from the ancient Greek for melon, ‘pepon’”, says Spiers. (Yes, melons, squashes and cucumbers are all cousins.)