Pumpkins aren't just for pie anymore.
For as long as there has been Thanksgiving, it seems, Americans have clung stubbornly to the notion that pumpkin, unlike its sister squashes, is meant to be served on a crust and under whipped cream.
And on only one day each year.
The Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009, when a lousy harvest resulted in (OK, modest) panic-buying and hoarding, appears to have caught our attention, and we are looking at the pumpkin in a new way.
"We think of pumpkins only as that Halloween thing," said Donna Crivello, owner of Donna's restaurants, who makes pumpkin ravioli and pumpkin risotto.
"Maybe we just think a pumpkin is too big and too hard to break open," she said, then added this advice: Simply prick the skin and bake in a slow oven, and pumpkin becomes easy to skin and cube. Bake it longer, and the pumpkin flesh will be soft enough for a pumpkin soup.
"You can use the smaller pie-sized pumpkins in almost all the same recipes that call for winter squash," says Teresa O'Connor, who writes the blog Seasonal Wisdom and is a co-author of "Grocery Gardening."
"Instead of potatoes, try mashing cooked pumpkins with different toppings like feta cheese, nuts, yogurt, cinnamon, cumin or other spices for a healthy side dish."
Healthy is right.
Pumpkins are packed with vitamin A in the form of cancer-fighting beta carotene, not to mention the B complex and C vitamins, as well as potassium, calcium and iron, O'Connor says.
Pumpkins have a fun side, too. Pastry chef Cindy Selby, owner of Blondie's Baking Company, a cafe in North Beach in Anne Arundel County, has made pumpkin flan and created individual creme brulees inside tiny pumpkins. "It is cute and a fun thing to do," she said.
"I just love fall. It is my favorite time of year, and it begins with pumpkin and maple syrup," said Selby, who created a recipe for a dessert bread that includes both.
You don't know what you have until it is gone, and home cooks were shocked in August and early September when they realized there was a shortage of canned pumpkin.
Grocery shelves are usually stocked with the surplus canned pumpkin from the previous season, and a poor growing season in 2009 and a rain-soaked harvest in Morton, Ill., the pumpkin capital of the world, kept the tractors from the fields, where the pumpkin crop was left to rot.
Nestle, which cans nearly 85 percent of the pumpkin sold in the U.S. under its Libby's label, had nothing to sell until the 2010 harvest — reported to be a good one — began to roll in in mid-September.
Some dedicated pumpkin fans even turned to eBay, where, the Associated Press reported, cans that normally sell for $1.50, were selling for $6 and $7.
In Maryland, this pumpkin growing season has been uneven — some farms received more rain than others — but generally good, said Brian Butler, the Carroll County extension agent for the University of Maryland and the state's unofficial pumpkin expert.
"It has been a little bit dry in places and a little bit too hot in places," said Butler. "Hot temperatures keep the pollination down." Maryland, he said, is almost ideally suited geographically to grow 30 or 40 varieties of pumpkin.
It is heat and drought that make pumpkin a staple of the vegetarian diet in his home country, said Qayum Karzai, the owner of Baltimore's award-winning Afghan restaurant, The Helmand.
" Afghanistan has little refrigeration and no winter vegetables. And pumpkin has a long shelf life, so all these things make it popular in Afghanistan," he said.
Kaddo bowrani, or "baked pumpkin," the appetizer he serves at The Helmand, is the restaurant's most popular dish. Chunks of pumpkin are fried and then slow-baked with a hint of sugar and cinnamon, served with warm yogurt mixed with garlic.
The soft pumpkin and yogurt, slathered on a warm, peppery flatbread, would be the main course in Afghanistan, Karsai said. "Unless it is a state dinner or guests you want to impress."
He buys enough pumpkins to last until May, he said, when he is forced to switch to eggplant or another squash until the pumpkin harvest comes in.
Pumpkin bread and pumpkin muffins are traditional ways to enjoy pumpkin in the fall. But The Main Ingredient, an Annapolis restaurant and catering service, startled its first patrons years ago by serving pumpkin muffins with all of its entree salads.
"It was a sweet way to finish off a salad. It was different, and it became our signature," said Evie Turner, a vice president at The Main Ingredient. They serve between 700 and 950 mini pumpkin muffins a week and go through 750 No. 10 cans of pumpkin in a year.
Happily, she said, the restaurant's supplier came through during The Great Pumpkin Crisis.
Would she share a recipe for the signature muffins?
"Never," she said, laughing.
The Helmand's kaddo bowrani (baked pumpkin)
Makes: 4-6 servings
1 small pumpkin (baby or spookies work best)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
For yogurt sauce:
1 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon fresh-cut diced garlic
Slice pumpkin and remove seeds. Peel outer skin. Slice 2-inch pieces lengthwise. Place oil in skillet pan and heat to medium heat. Add pumpkin. Cook on medium heat covered for approximately 10 minutes, turning once. Remove from pan and place in small roasting or baking pan. Sprinkle the pumpkin with the sugar and cinnamon. Cover tightly. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minute or until soft. Time may differ according to the hardness of the pumpkin.
For yogurt sauce, stir ingredients together until smooth.
Serve pumpkin warm with yogurt sauce.
Courtesy of Qayum Karsai, The Helmand