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Chef Foster: Channel your inner Pilgrim by making creative recipes using seasonal pumpkins

Inevitably, sometime in October I will be pressed to write about pumpkins. I will talk about their history, the origins, the botanical aspects of the various squash, and finally what you can and can’t do with them.

It’s not that I mind doing this, pumpkins are after all the focal point of October, and even fall in general. Pumpkin festivals, along with corn mazes and fall hay rides were part of my childhood, and Halloween continues to be one of my favorite celebrations.

What discourages me at times is our focus on the squash as an ornament and not a food source. In a month known for our concern with hunger in the world, any viable food source should be considered. Now before I’m corrected a hundred times over, allow me to clarify that last statement.

I’m fully aware that the pumpkins used for jack o’ lanterns are not very good for eating. Sugar pumpkins, as they are called, are the pie pumpkin of choice. Even the seeds from the jack o’ lanterns are not the pumpkin seed of choice. They come from a different variety. But it sometimes strikes me that we don’t do more with the pumpkin, that we don’t really utilize the pumpkin as a food source as much as we celebrate it as an ornament.

That approach is exemplified by our tendency to make everything pumpkin in October, including the color we assign to the month, a pumpkin orange, and the products that pop up in stores: pumpkin tea, pumpkin caramels, pumpkin chips.

Do we do this for corn, tomatoes or spinach? And yet the pumpkin in October generates millions of dollars in revenue, simply to sit on our front porch as a perishable decoration. The only other item like this comes a bit later in the year when red and green are the dominant colors, and we decorate our house with a giant tree, (don’t get me started on that!)

The issues I have with the pumpkin’s limited window of use stem from its origins as a squash, and a history that dates back well into our new world past. Cultivated by people in this country before the arrival of the first Europeans it was a food source before it became “the pumpkin.”

A squash like butternut and acorn it was used in much the same way; roasted, dried and held over as a food source for the brutal New England winters. Farther south it was salted or roasted, or even dried and ground into flour.

Part of the three sister’s agricultural model, with beans and corn, pumpkin and other squash were a mainstay for thousands of years, with the entire pumpkin used as a vessel, and the seeds eaten roasted and salted.

As we began to tinker and specialize with our fruits and vegetables we began to lose some of the older varieties. Pumpkins already suffered from the perception that they were not worth the effort, so they best of their qualities were selected to move forward, and other hard squash varieties were developed to take their pace as a food source.

Precisely when the split came, and when the ornamental pumpkin far outstripped the edible one is the subject of debate. What is absolute though is that the jack o’ lantern as we know it today is expressly cultivated for its October tour de force and anything else is often left to chance.

From a culinary point of view, I favor the butternut squash, as it gives me dense colorful flesh, a small seed pack which expands my cutting surface, and the ability to use the squash in a variety of dishes from soups to desserts. Closer in shape, cavity size and texture is the acorn squash, once a staple of fall eating.

The acorn shares some of the disadvantages of the pumpkin as it has a large cavity, and in mature squash a stringy flesh. Much like the pumpkin though (and not like the butternut) the large cavity is perfect for stuffing with either sweet or savory ingredients.

It has the capacity to hold liquids, like soups, and in certain varieties that are grown for this, can be a single serving vessel making for a great fall presentation. If you want to realize a bit of history in your cooking you can take a page from an early Thanksgiving feast and bake your pumpkin pie filling inside the actual pumpkin.

This may have been the very first pumpkin pie, and it probably included some of the same ingredients found in today’s recipes. I would use a small pumpkin for the vessel and a sugar pumpkin for the filling.

The actual cooking method is very old school: baked in the coals of the fireplace until the custard set. It’s an intriguing way to connect with history and one of the reasons food is so fascinating to me, the methods may change, but the ingredients stay the same.

So while the market is flush with jack o’ lanterns, and the farmer’s market is selling a sugar pumpkin (make sure to ask!) be adventurous and channel your inner Pilgrim. Forget the crust and make yourself a pumpkin pie this weekend, props to the orange orb of October.

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John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here.

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