Back in the day, pumpkins were no big deal. They would make an appearance at Halloween as jack o’lanterns and show up again as pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving and that was about it—a nice unobtrusive seasonal guest.
That’s no longer the case. These days, pumpkins have become superstars for two basic yet kinda disturbing reasons. The first impetus is the Martha Stewart-ification of America. Halloween has become a major holiday, and the old theme of trick-or-treating has been replaced by a new tradition of displaying every autumn-inspired craft imaginable. Do not discount the difference between quaint and tacky. Quaint is a cutesy homemade craft, perfectly acceptable. Tacky is a mass-produced product designed to look cutesy and hand-crafted. Got it? Plastic jack o’lanterns are no substitute for a hand-carved pumpkin any more than a microwaved Swanson turkey dinner is a substitute for a homemade version of the real thing.
The other disturbing example is the ubiquitous pumpkin spice. I guess we can thank Starbucks for this one. Was pumpkin spice a big deal 10 or 15 years ago before Starbucks began dumping it in their insipid “coffee” drinks? Now pumpkin spice shows up in dozens of products such as Pumpkin Spiced Frosted Flakes, Pumpkin Spiced Greek Yogurt, Pumpkin Spiced Truffles, Pumpkin Spiced Bagels, marshmallows, ice cream … even Jello. Do people really still eat Jello? I guess an occasional Jello shot is still done at frat parties, but pumpkin spice? Really?
On the bright side, real pumpkins have begun showing up in more and more seasonal recipes. As we Americans continue to develop our cuisine, we look to recipe ideas from the past to inspire our contemporary seasonal farm-to-table culture. Pumpkins, a winter squash, can be utilized in the same manner as most other hard squashes. The most unusual of these is spaghetti squash. Even after working with these yellowish, football-shaped beauties for decades, I’m still amazed by the pasta-like strands that emerge from the tough protective skin. These slightly sweet, golden strands are among the most amazing vehicles for fresh herbs and butter.
Pumpkins have a flavor profile similar to a sweet potato or butternut squash and, of course, can be used in similar ways. Think pumpkin risotto, or add cubes of pumpkin to soups or even to vegetarian chili. I enjoy using pumpkin in Thai curries this time of year. The pumpkin also pairs well with shellfish such as our beloved Mayport shrimp. And you can Chef-Up the seeds in this brittle recipe.
Chef Bill’s Pumpkin Seed Brittle
• 1 tsp. vegetable oil, plus more for coating
• 7 oz. hulled pumpkin seeds (the green ones)
• 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
• 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
• 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
• 22 oz. granulated sugar
• 12 oz. water
1. Place oil and seeds in a 10-inch sauté pan; set over medium-high heat. Toast seeds, constantly moving the pan. You’ll smell the aroma and hear some begin to crackle when they’re toasted, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer seeds to a small mixing bowl, add cayenne, cinnamon and salt; stir to combine.
2. Line a half-sheet pan with a silicone baking mat.
3. Add sugar and water in a saucepan, cook over high heat, stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, until it comes to a boil. Stop stirring, cover, cook 3 minutes. Uncover, reduce heat to medium, and cook until sugar is light amber, about 25 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and stir in pumpkin seed mixture. This will greatly reduce the sugar’s temperature, so work quickly.
5. Once it’s evenly mixed, pour mixture on prepared half-sheet pan. Spread thinly with oiled spatula. Work quickly when pouring and spreading the mixture. Cool completely, about 30 minutes, then break into pieces. And then break into smiles!
Email Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Fernandina’s Amelia Island Culinary Academy, at firstname.lastname@example.org, for inspiration and to get Cheffed-Up!