Monday, October 13, 2008

Pumpkins: October’s bounty is versatile, colourful and good for you too!

Mini-pumpkins serve as lovely centrepieces, name card holders (just make a slice to hold the card) and tealight candleholders (slice off top and hollow out) for a Fall dinner table.

It’s October 1535. You’re Jacques Cartier navigating your way up the St. Lawrence River for the first time. Peering through your scope you see scattered patches of large, bright orange round things sitting in the riverbank fields ahead. Hmm? Have you been at sea too long or, are you about to be invaded by an army of very pudgy, misshapen aliens with a serious camouflage problem? Being a seasoned world explorer you pull over and ask the local native people what these orange things are. “Isqoutm squash, monsieur,” they reply. Translation: “Pumpkins”. And so, you and your French confreres are introduced to the monster member of the Cucurbita family, her siblings being the petite squash and svelte-like cucumber. The French named this mysterious large melon the Pepon, then Pompon. The English changed it to Pompion, and finally, the Pumpkin.

Our native people though were the real discoverers of the pumpkin’s many virtues. High in fibre, heart-friendly potassium, vitamins A and C, and good-for-you antioxidant beta-carotene, pumpkin was used as a daily food staple in the native people’s diet long before the colonists landed in North America. In these pre-marshmallow times, as a delicacy, the Native Indians would roast long strips of pumpkin over an open fire. Hollowed out pumpkins also performed double-duty as biodegradable, disposable and nutritious roasting pots in the hot ashes of dying fires. No pot scrubbing required!

But it was the Irish who revealed the pumpkin’s inner magical spirit. Always in pursuit of life, liberty and luck, Irish settlers to North America began the tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack-o-lanterns and placing a piece of coal inside to light up the creation, as part of their Samhain holiday on October 31st to welcome back dead souls. They used turnips in the old country but quickly discovered pumpkins were much easier to hack up in a hurry.

These days pumpkin seeds are used to deworm humans, to prevent prostrate cancer and to relieve burns—not surprising since pumpkins are comprised of 80 per cent water.

With the pumpkin being a lifesaver in so may ways, it’s easy to see why the wise Fairy Godmother reserved a pumpkin carriage to whisk away the one-shoed lady to life-altering bliss in the children’s fairy tale, Cinderella. And, we have lived happily ever after with the pumpkin ever since!

Try these pumpkin pleaser recipes to get you started.

Tasty Bacon-Pumpkin Pasta
Serves 4-6
3-4 cups dry penne pasta (or your favourite pasta)
2 cups pumpkin puree (1 large tin)
6 strips bacon
2 garlic cloves minced
1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
¾ cream or whole milk
pinch of sage
pinch of nutmeg

1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Toasted chopped pecans for garnish, if desired

Boil penne to al dente. In a deep fry pan cook bacon until crisp, drain on paper towels to absorb grease and dice into thin strips. Discard all but 1 tbsp bacon fat from fry pan. Lower fry pan heat to med-low and cook garlic in remaining bacon fat. Stir often to prevent it from burning. Add the pumpkin, parsley, sage, nutmeg and cream. Stir until warmed. DO NOT BOIL. (If you wish, reserve some of the sauce and Parmesan cheese for another meal at this point.) Drain pasta. Stir Parmesan cheese into pasta, then stir in sauce. Mix well and serve immediately. Top each serving with toasted chopped pecans.

The Crowd-Pleaser Pumpkin Cheesecake
This recipe is easy to make but allow yourself enough time to bake and cool the cake, then chill it overnight. You will need a 9 inch spring form pan and an electric mixer.
2 cups gingersnap cookie crumbs
(PC English style Gingersnaps crushed in a food processor work well)
3 tbsp butter, melted
2 tbsp granulated sugar
(Reserve a tbsp or two of this mixture to sprinkle over the baked cake, if desired)

3 250 g pkgs light cream cheese, softened
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 ½ cups canned pumpkin
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp EACH nutmeg and ginger
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp bourbon, if desired

Combine ingredients. Press firmly onto bottom and ½ inch up sides of a 9 inch spring form pan. Chill for 1 or more hours.
In a large bowl, using a electric mixer, beat cream cheese and sugars until very smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time, until just blended. Beat in pumpkin, spices, milk, cornstarch and bourbon, until thoroughly combined. Pour into pan. Bake at 350 F for 50-55 minutes or until center of cake is just set. Remove cake from oven and run a knife around sides of pan. Cool at room temperature on a cookie rack. Chill, covered, overnight. To serve, remove sides of pan and garnish as desired with crumb mixture, whipped cream or whole pecans or pralines.

High Fibre Breakfast Pumpkin Muffins
Dry ingredients:
¾ cup bran
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup white sugar
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cloves
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup raisins or currants

Wet ingredients:
1 cup canned pumpkin
1 egg unbeaten
½ cup canola oil
½ cup plain yogurt

In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients. Add pumpkin, egg, oil and yogurt and stir until just combined. Tip for muffin success: after adding wet ingredients to the dry ingredient mixture, only stir the mixture 17 times! Spoon batter into paper-lined muffin tins. Bake in 400 F oven for 25 minutes or until firm to the touch. Let cool in tin on a rack for 10 minutes. Remove muffins from tin and allow to cool on a cookie rack. Makes 12 muffins.

Bon Appétit!

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