Saturday, 7 January 2017

Pumpkin: beyond soup

Forest Nut squash, a tasty Hokkaido type
Every time I give someone the gift of pumpkin they say to me: 'I'll make some soup from that.' Every time! Pumpkin soup is nice, but it's not exactly top of the soup league tables. In fact, I wouldn't rank it in the top five. It's a shame to soup a perfectly good pumpkin or squash when they could go into so many wonderful dishes: Think risotto, think curry, think roasted and stuffed, think pie, muffin and scone. And if you have a glut, never fear. Squashes keep extremely well and with the recipe suggestions below you'll get through all your pumpkin, eventually.

Growing, curing and storing

First off, some growing and storage tips. Pumpkins are easy to grow, but it helps to know the following:
Bon Bon, another favourite variety
  • When choosing varieties to grow, consider the 'days to maturity', especially if you live somewhere with a short season. From trial and error I can say that squashes with '90 days to maturity' work in our garden in southwest Scotland, whereas anything that takes longer is probably not going to ripen. Turk's Turbans and Sweet Dumplings, for example, are out. You can still eat immature squash, but it's not as tasty: more watery, like a courgette.
  • Don't sow too early! If the squash plants are too large they can suffer terrible transplant shock whereas a young plant with one real leaf seems to adjust much better. I start my squashes indoors about a month before I can count on being able to plant them out. Here, this means sowing them in the first week in May, with a view to planting the seedlings out in the last week in May or the first week in June, depending on the weather.
    Wooden stem: a sign of maturity
  • Pumpkins really like a good feed. And once the transplanted seedlings are established I keep on mulching them with grass cuttings.
  • I hear that in some places you need a watering regime to make the pumpkins swell, but luckily in Scotland, Mother Nature takes care of almost all the watering and I've never yet had to water my pumpkins.
  • Pick the pumpkins at the right stage, especially if you plan to store them for any length of time. It can be hard to tell whether a squash is ripe, especially when it's your first experience of a new variety. Signs to look out for are: colour change (look at the spot that the pumpkin lies on - it should be a different colour from the rest of the fruit); hard, gnarly, wooden stem; hard rind (press on it with your thumb to check); hollow sound when knocked.
    Squashes store well at room temperature
  • Keep a good bit of stem on the pumpkin. This makes it last longer.
  • Cure pumpkins for at least two weeks before eating. Squashes continue to convert starch to sugars after harvest and will become sweeter with time. Apparently in dry climates this curing can be done outside in the sun, but a sunny windowsill is a better option in the UK.
  • Store the pumpkins at room temperature. Yes, I know, this is contrary to normal advice and contrary to instinct, but from experience I can say that I have not had pumpkins go mouldy in my kitchen and lounge (where they look very decorative on the windowsills), whereas plenty of them went mouldy when they were stored in unheated locations.


Quartered and deseeded, ready for peeling
In case you're not sure where to start with a pumpkin there are usually two options:
  • Bake in the oven: whole (small pumpkins), halved (medium pumpkins) or in quarters (large pumpkins). If halved or quartered, remove seeds first and oil the cut surface.
  • Quarter, remove seeds, peel and chop up ready for use. Stored inside an air-tight plastic container, the pumpkin cubes will keep for a week or longer in the fridge.

Recipe ideas

Colourful pumpkin risotto
A small pumpkin baked whole in the oven (at say 180-200 degrees C) is one of the easiest dishes to prepare. After about an hour, or when the pumpkin feels soft, remove it from the oven, cut it in half, scrape out the seeds and either serve it immediately with butter/olive oil, salt and pepper, briefly pop it back in the oven with some cheese inside the cavity or stuff it with mince, chilli con carne or a vegetarian alternative.

Keeping containers with cubed pumpkin ready to use in the fridge is very handy. I simply add a handful to any suitable dish: venison and root vegetable casserole, bolognese sauce, tagine, curries etc. Squash will work in any dish where you'd normally use courgettes and the starchier ones make a good potato substitute. Below are some recipe ideas where the pumpkin takes centre stage.

Butternut squash risotto is a classic vegetarian option on restaurant menus, but it doesn't have to be butternut. The combination of any creamy pumpkin and arborio rice is a wonderful match. The cheese doesn't have to be parmesan - try goat's cheese or blue cheese. Both work particularly well with pumpkin. And it doesn't have to be arborio rice either. Try pearl barley as a wholesome substitute.
Pumpkin coconut curry
Pumpkin dhal

In this house, most pumpkins are end up in curries. Possibly our favourite is pumpkin masala. It's great on its own, with rice or chapatis, or as a filling for strudels, savoury pancakes, flatbreads or, indeed, dosas. Pumpkin and coconut is also a great combination, in a straight-up pumpkin coconut curry or a pumpkin and chickpea curry. And squash enriches a good dhal.

As a side dish, roasted squash is a nice potato alternative. This can be very simple, using your cubes from the fridge, or a bit fancier. Simply mash any leftovers for a side of pumpkin mash the next day.

But let's not forget dessert! A lot of squashes have plenty of natural sweetness, which makes them a natural pie filling. When we lived in the US people were amazed that I used fresh pumpkin in my pumpkin pies instead of the tinned stuff. I was equally amazed that anybody would use tinned pumpkin! The fresh stuff is even tastier and it's not onerous to make at all.

Pumpkin is also good in muffins, scones (both savoury and sweet) and teabreads.

Some people also pickle their pumpkins. I'm not a big fan, but decide for yourself.

Right, I've got four pumpkins left from last year's harvest. Now what to make next?


  1. Definitely a star in the garden and the kitchen! Lovely recipe ideas which show just how versatile squashes are. They are one of our absolute favourites and store so well, any that's starting to 'go' is roasted with spices and frozen for sauces and soups (sorry!). You can leave the skin on many types. Which varieties are you planning to grow this year?

    1. I think I've only grown one variety where you can leave the skin on (Forest Nut). Lots of new varieties to try next year - thanks to seed parcels from Finland! We'll have Bon Bon, Pink Fairy, Forest Nut, Sdobnaya, Golden Nugget and Marina di Chioggia again. And then about 10 novelties, including Butterkin and Georgia Candy Roaster (!).


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