|Forest Nut squash, a tasty Hokkaido type|
Growing, curing and storingFirst 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|
- 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.
|Colourful pumpkin risotto|
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|
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?