A sure sign that Indian summer is in full bloom is the appearance of the pumpkin patch the local produce stands. Farm Fresh Produce in the South San Francisco Bay Area occupied a stretch of property on the corner of a suburban area, and busy street, that grew corn as high as an elephant’s eye and ruby red over sized tomatoes, big sunflowers with their nodding heads to line the field, and old rose bushes, for as long as I can remember. How delightfully out of place. It was sold recently when the owner passed away and the heirs wanted money instead of the love and appreciation of the local community. There was a big brouhaha trying to convince them not to sell and build houses, but it was an effort lost.
Of course the place, an alternative to the downtown farmers’ market, was jammed with shoppers, especially on the weekends. Try to get a parking place in the dusty, unpaved lot on the weekend, much less drive through with the cars parked every which way. They had great produce, killer fresh corn warm from the sun, and lots of old-fashioned neighborhood jostling and laughter. The stand is a crooked old shed, with a coat of faded yellow paint of course, with the slatted window awnings that are pushed open with poles to reveal the counter and check out register with lots of baskets of late berries and figs an arm’s length away. If you’re lucky there are some juicy last of the season tomatoes still warm from just being picked and lugs of unevens for canning and ketchup. The lines are long with all size humans proudly holding their pumpkin of choice, ready for it to be weighed to determine the cost.
The stand had an old miniature steam engine and over the years I have seen many grown ups perched precariously in the little open boxcar seats next to delighted youngsters. The train goes round and round the pumpkin patch that is chock full of every size and shape globe, and a big scarecrow fashioned out of corn stalks smack dab in the center.
Being a pumpkin lover, I always have lots of piles of orange pumpkins and different shaped winter squash on my porch for decoration. One year I had a hankering for a really big pumpkin. Not just big. But gigantic. A Great Pumpkin like in the Peanuts cartoon or Cinderella’s coach. I strolled around the patch, eyeing the monsters called Big Jims. Dark colored to the point of almost burnt orange with deep ridges and characteristically tilted this way and that from their growing pattern. Beautiful.
I chose my pumpkin but was thwarted by the fact it was too heavy to even budge an inch and too large to get my
arms around. I am glad there isn’t a Utube of me figuring out I couldn’t lift it. So one of the farm workers took pity on me and came over offering to help. Together we got an ancient wheelbarrow and laboriously rolled the pumpkin up onto it. The problem now was that it was too heavy for the barrow to be pushed and the wheel in front was almost flat from the weight. I dug in my heels and took hold of the wooden arms and pushed while my helper pulled from the front. I eventually got to the front counter, but how to weigh such an item; I figure it must have weighed about 90 pounds. We agreed on a price by bartering and next was to get the pumpkin into my hatchback. Ummm. Two helpers lifted and rolled it in and the hatch stayed open as I drove home around the corner, hanging very low in the back, bursting with pride like I grew it myself.
Not to say this story is over, but I needed lots of help getting the Big Jim (I was now calling the pumpkin by name) out of the car and around to my porch. There Big Jim sat for many months, way into February, never getting soft or moldy. Neighbor kids and special little friends sat on it like a big stool from Alice in Wonderland with great delight. And it was the subject of many a lazy day conversation with a retelling of the day I bought it. I really enjoyed that pumpkin.
Back to the subject of baking by the seasons, pumpkins are really good for cooking and baking, but not the varieties found in a pumpkin patch. Many people keep their pumpkins on their porch, even cut them out into sculptures and put the candle inside, then think to cook it later. Please no; bacteria city. The pumpkins that are grown for decoration have bland, watery flesh, and really tough skin. The bigger the pumpkin, the less sweet and delicious is my code. For cooking you want an eating-quality variety of winter squash with thick meaty flesh and a minimum of strings. It is a shock to most cooks to find out that canned pumpkin is a combination of hard, low moisture squashes like Blue Hubbard and Banana, which have great flavor.
Buy cooking, or sugar, pumpkins at your farmer’s market or find them with the winter squashes in the produce lane at the supermarket. They weigh less than 7 pounds, are very spherical, and bright orange with their stem
still attached and unblemished skin. I notice most enlightened markets all carry sugar pumpkins now. Store your cooking pumpkins at room temperature for no longer than a month and up to 3 months in the refrigerator. Then you can hack into pieces (or place the squash in a paper bag and throw it on the floor), clean out the flat creamy seeds, cook it, cool then peel off the skin, then purée the flesh in a food processor to be used in a favorite recipe. Figure you will yield about half its weight in puree.
I like a sweet spice mixture called pumpkin pie spices, a scrumptious combination of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, mace, and cloves. All the spices to make yummy pumpkin pies, carrot cake, and banana bread without taking down every spice jar on the rack. I love Penzys’ hand-mixed blend (www.pensysspices.com), but the supermarket or warehouse spice rack usually has the mixture this time of year.
The slow cooker is a real boon to winter squash lovers — especially ones who don’t enjoy hacking apart a big
winter squash, laboriously scraping out the tenacious strings and slippery seeds and trimming away the peel. With the slow cooker on your side, the only trick is choosing a squash– or several small ones — that will fit completely into your cooker and still allow the lid to close. Just wash and dry the squash and place it in the crockery insert along with 2 tablespoons of water. Place the insert into the slow cooker base and put on the cover. Turn the cooker to low and cook until the squash is tender enough to be easily pierced through to the center with a skewer or paring knife, about 4 to 9 hours, depending on the squash and your cooker. Allow the squash to cool, then slice it in half from stem to base. The seeds and strings will be oh-so-easy to scoop out with a soup spoon. Discard them and spoon out the flesh from the hard, outer shell. Place in a food processor or use an immersion blender to puree. Discard the shell. The cooked squash can be eaten as is, used in recipes or frozen for future use. If you wish to cook a squash that is too large for your slow cooker, the technique is slightly different. Wash the squash, cut it into pieces (carefully please as some of the pumpkins are really really hard, especially when they are first picked), scrape out the seeds and strings. Place 2 tablespoons water in the crockery insert, then stack the squash pieces in the insert, curved sides up. Cook on low until the squash is tender, about 2 hours to 6 hours, depending on the squash and your cooker.
Crock-Steamed Winter Squash
Butternut, acorn, Kabocha, banana, turban, buttercup, Blue Hokkaido, cinderella, Blue Hubbard. Large winter squash, known as the maximas – so creamy and delicious with a high sugar content, deep orange flesh and few fibers – can be a nuisance to cook by conventional methods. The dry heat of the oven can dry out and toughen the cut side of the squash, leaving a skin that is hard to break through with a fork. A steamer or the microwave will do a credible job, but one can hardly leave the house with a pot on the stove or the microwave running. Let your slow cooker come to the rescue. Because you add no liquid to the slow cooker, your squash will be intensely flavored. Faced with a pile of squash at season’s end? Cook up as much as you can and freeze the cooked pulp in meal-sized amounts in quart freezer plastic bags or pint containers. Then you can have pureed squash or a treat of muffins or pies made with your own cooked pumpkin anytime.
The typical “Jack-o-Lantern” pumpkins, uncarved please, can be quite watery and do not have the intense
flavor of the squash varieties that are grown for eating. I know this for a fact since when I first cooked a pumpkin from scratch, this was the pumpkin I used and it was just awlful. I switched back to a can of Libby’s for how much trouble it was.
Slow Cooker: Large Round or Oval
Machine Setting and Cook Time: Low Heat: 7 to 9 hours
- 1 large or 2 smaller hard-shelled winter squash or pumpkin
- 2 tablespoons water
Wash and dry the squash. Halve the squash with a sharp knife and use a metal spoon to scoop out the seeds and strings from the center. Cut the squash into pieces that will fit into your slow cooker. Stack the pieces in the cooker, hard shell side down. (If you have too many to fit at one time, cook them in shifts, refrigerating the remaining uncooked squash pieces in a plastic bag until you are ready to cook them.) Cover and cook on LOW for 8 to 10 hours, or until squash is tender. The squash may be served right away or pureed for use in other recipes.
To serve as-is: Top with a bit of butter. Add a sprinkling of salt and pepper OR brown sugar and powdered ginger or cinnamon.
To serve as mashed squash: When squash is cool enough to handle, use a
large metal spoon to scoop out the flesh. Puree the squash in a food processor or by passing it through a food mill, seasoning it to taste with freshly squeezed orange juice and grated fresh or powdered ginger.
Excerpted from Not Your Mother’s Slow Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. (c) 2005, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2014
Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.