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Friday, December 2, 2011

Farewell Pumpkins as Decorations; I'm Turning You into Food

I love so many of the sights, smells, and sounds of the yuletide season. Trees, lights, spicy baking smells, and classic Christmas music (we'll ignore for now the less than wonderful stuff that fills too many background music channels at malls and stores).


It's all really wonderful, especially when we finally get a couple of inches of snow outside to add to the decorations. (Having lived in the desert Southwest for many years, I know that this is not really a part of everyone's Christmas, but the white frosting on the trees today just seems more traditional.) With the forecast of snow, I knew it was time to be done with the fall decor. The nice thing about using pumpkins, apples and other fall fruits and vegetables for decoration is that they can become the start of some wonderful meals.





And so, today, a pumpkin "tutorial"  for turning the Halloween/fall decorations into the basis for soups, breads, etc., along with some thoughts on pumpkin seed roasting.

Pumpkin Puree

I started out with two pumpkins that had been part of the front door fall decorations;  one was a little pie pumpkin, the other a medium sized jack-o-lantern.  The small pie pumpkins are generally better for cooking we are told, but my large pumpkin looked just too good to throw away, so I hacked away at it, pulled out the seeds for later, put the pieces on a cookie sheet (with a little water to keep the pan from being too hard to wash), and placed it in a 350 degree oven until the largest pieces were really soft when I poked at them with a fork and a well-gloved finger. For my larger pumpkin, the time was a little over two hours. You will need to adjust the time depending on the size of your own fruit.

You want to be sure the pumpkin is really well done, maybe even a little brown on the edges (note the pictures) so that you get maximum sweetness from the roasting.  My oven had no room for both pumpkins, so the smaller one went in later alongside some other baking; that one took barely an hour to reach full tenderness.




 

The next step is to let the pumpkin cool until it is easy to handle.When it is ready, use a soup spoon or serving spoon to scrape out the pulp into a bowl. My large pumpkin yielded over nine pounds of pulp, so I had to be prepared with a very large bowl.



When all the pulp is out of the shell, begin pureeing it, batch by batch, in your processor. A blender might also work, but I think you will definitely need one of the "mechanical" modes of getting the pulp as smooth as you will want for most recipes.

 When all of the pulp is pureed, you can prepare extra amounts for the freezer. I have discovered that placing a sandwich bag inside a large coffee mug and then scooping the pulp into the bag is virtually mess-free. A little experimentation with your mugs will provide just the right size for you. I package my pumpkin (as well as squash and applesauce) in two cup portions. The scale, adjusted for the weight of the mug, makes my job even easier.






Zippered bags will allow you to lay the bags flat until frozen, but I didn't have any available this time. Whichever kind of bag I use, I will put them into a larger, freezer weight bag after they are frozen solid, for maximum protection.


Pumpkin Seeds
 
Search for "toasted pumpkin seeds" and you'll find all kinds of approaches, from the oven to skillet to microwave. Some are just rinsed and popped into the oven while others are cooked for a few minutes first.  Last year, I used the method that calls for brining the seeds and then baking them, and it turned out much better than just putting the seeds directly in the oven. This year, however, I decided to play test kitchen and try a couple of different preparations.

The winner, surprisingly, used the microwave. This is really good to know, as there have been times when I had only a few pumpkin (or squash) seeds, and it hardly seemed worthwhile to run the oven for so little product. The microwave is perfect for these small batches, and it seemed like it was a lot easier to get the seeds really crispy throughout the whole batch. Here is the final method I used.

Microwave-Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
pumpkin or squash seeds
brine
olive or canola oil
seasonings to taste

1.  Wash the seeds well, to remove all clinging pulp.
2.  Put the seeds into water to cover, adding about a teaspoon of salt per cup of water. Place in refrigerator for several hours or overnight. (They can actually sit in the brine for a couple of days if you don't get to them earlier.)
3.  Drain the seeds in a colander. If desired, pat lightly with a towel.
4.  Spread the seeds in a microwave safe dish large enough to allow the seeds to be only a layer or two thick across the bottom. 
5. Sprinkle with a small amount of oil--probably about one to two teaspoons per cup of seeds. Using your fingers, mix the oil into the seeds, making sure they are evenly coated. 
6.  Shake the pan to spread the seeds evenly and then put in microwave on full power for about 3 to 4 minutes per cup of seeds. After a couple of minutes, remove from microwave and shake to stir.
The amount of time that will be required will depend on your microwave as well as the amount of seeds you are toasting. They should just barely be turning golden and look dry; do be careful not to overbake. If necessary, if you take the seeds out and they are not yet crunchy, you can return them for another few minutes even after they have cooled the first time.
7.  After removing from the microwave and before the seeds have cooled, sprinkle with your favorite seasoning blend. I like cajun seasoning, but you might want to try a little curry powder on some or an Italian seasoning blend with a little salt. With the small batches you will be making, you can have fun trying new flavors.





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