It's difficult to think of a foodstuff that is as season-specific, and yet as culinarily versatile, as the pumpkin. Last year, the top six pumpkin producing states yielded a whopping 1.07 billion pounds of pumpkins grown across more than 51,000 acres, valued at approximately $113 million. What's even more amazing is the estimate that 80 percent of these pumpkins were available in the month of October.
The majority of these of course are carving pumpkins, which are much less tender and flavorful than the smaller sugar, or pie pumpkins, that are used for cooking. However, just as we would never dream of carving a pumpkin in March, it's equally difficult to imagine a Halloween without Jack-o-Lanterns, or a Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.
The tradition of carving pumpkins on Halloween (which arrived in America in the mid-nineteenth century with the arrival of Irish immigrants, who'd long harbored traditions of carving potatoes and turnips) is relatively new to this country, and the holiday as we know it, with costumes, trick-or-treating and apple bobbing, really didn't begin to evolve until after World War II. Similarly, many of the culinary applications for pumpkin are fairly new. After all, I don't exactly remember growing up with pumpkin soy lattes; needless to say, they are a relatively new invention.
Though pumpkins were always an important part of the Early American diet–the Native Americans taught the pilgrims how to cook and eat this New World food–early recipes were a far cry from the ones that we are familiar with today. A common preparation involved cutting a small hole out of the pumpkin, scraping out the seeds and roasting it whole over ashes, sometimes with sugar, milk or butter poured into the cavity, to soften the flesh. Occasionally the rinds were pickled, and nineteenth-century cookbooks offered recipes for mashed pumpkin, similar to mashed potatoes, and pumpkin soup.
Fast forward to present day, and we have a myriad of pumpkin inflected recipes, and they're not just limited to pie. It seems that almost anything can be made with pumpkin nowadays (provided, of course, that it's prepared between September and New Years). Risotto, chili, pancakes, creme brulee, and of course coffee, might be spiked with pumpkin. I'd even hedge a guess that for most cooks, preparing a pumpkin-themed dish is not only expected, but possibly even required during the holiday season.
This year, I took this to heart, and I whipped up an incredibly easy creamy pumpkin soup. (During a hurricane, mind you, it was an exceptionally comforting dish.) It's worth the effort – after all, pumpkins will only be here for a few more months.
Creamy pumpkin soup
1 4-5lb sugar pumpkin, halved, seeds removed
2 tablespoons butter
1 leek, rinsed and sliced
1 apple, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 carrot, peeled and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 pinch each of ground nutmeg and ginger
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup cream (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place each pumpkin half face down on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and roast until tender, about 45 to 50 minutes. Set aside and allow the pumpkin to cool.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Add in the leek, apple and carrot, along with a large pinch of salt and black pepper, and cook until tender. When the leeks are translucent and the carrots are just tender (not necessarily soft, just crisp tender), add in the cumin, nutmeg and ginger. Cook for an additional minute, and then add the stock.
Scrape the soft pumpkin out of its skin and add it to the soup mixture. Simmer until the carrots are very tender. Carefully transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth. (Alternatively, it can be passed through a food mill, or pureed using an immersion blender.) Return the soup to the pot. Add in the cream, if using, and season with salt and pepper
Serve with pumpkin seeds, a bit of fresh thyme and a spoonful of crème fraîche, as pictured here, or with croutons or a nice loaf of bread.