Fall is in the air. The nights are getting cooler, soup suddenly starts to sound fantastic, and crisp, shiny apples, multicolored squash and pumpkins of all shapes and sizes line market aisles.
While apples may be the stars of early autumn, pumpkin season is heating up right about now, just in time for some pre-Halloween cooking and baking. Besides the ubiquitous pie, pumpkin highlights a variety of baked goods, including bread pudding, quick bread and cookies. It also works well in savory dishes, especially spicy ones, lending an earthy sweetness to curries, stir-fry dishes, salads and soups.
Pumpkins are one of the oldest North American fruits – scientists have discovered seeds from a related species in Mexico dating back to 5500 B.C. While pumpkins and related winter squash are grown all over the world now, the American Midwest alone produces 1.5 billion pounds a year. Pumpkins have been designated superfoods that contain high amounts of fiber and vitamins A, C and E. Their seeds, also called pepitas, are a good source of protein and essential fatty acids.
When baking pies, simmering soups and making a plethora of other seasonal pumpkin dishes, many cooks reach immediately for canned pumpkin. But you can make your own pumpkin puree with minimal effort. Buy a few Sugar Pie pumpkins or other cooking squash and cut them in half vertically. Scoop out the seeds and pulp and roast the pumpkin halves face down on a baking sheet in a 375 F oven until soft, 45-60 minutes. Scoop the pumpkin into a blender. puree until smooth and drain through cheesecloth until it reaches the desired consistency.
After cleaning off the pulp, toast the seeds in a 400 F oven for 10-20 minutes or until they start to brown. Eat whole or shelled, as you prefer. It’s not quite as easy as picking up a can of pumpkin or a bag of pepitas, but in the event of another canned-pumpkin shortage like last year’s, it’s good to know you can make your own.
Pumpkins and pepitas pair well, as you might imagine. If you’ve never sampled pumpkin seeds, they’re worth seeking out for their distinctive hollow crunch. They make a great snack on their own but also complement other autumn dishes. Try tossing a handful of seeds into your pumpkin-spice granola or using them as a crunchy topping for pumpkin pudding. Pepitas make a nice addition to any fall salad, pumpkin-themed or not, and a crisp garnish for a variety of pumpkin soups, including a quick, spicy, Southwest-inspired rendition that’s ideal for a chilly weeknight.
Southwestern Pumpkin Soup
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 2 onions, diced
• 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and diced
• 1 tablespoon cumin
• 30 ounces pumpkin, canned or homemade
• 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
• Small handful of cilantro
• 2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen
• 2 bell peppers, diced
• Juice from 2 limes
• Diced avocado, crumbled tortilla chips, shredded cheddar or pepper jack cheese, cilantro and/or pepitas, for garnish
Heat olive oil in medium or large stockpot over medium-high heat. When warm, add onions, jalapeños and cumin. Sauté until onions are soft, approximately 10 minutes.
Add pumpkin and stock and stir to combine. Simmer until heated through, approximately 10-15 minutes.
Add cilantro and corn. Buzz with immersion blender or run through stand blender until desired consistency.
Return to pot and add bell peppers and limes.
Simmer over low heat another 5 minutes.
Serve immediately with preferred garnishes.