Traveling along I-81 last week, I spied a field of bright orange globes, rowed and ready for final harvest. Destined for a cannery, these pumpkins will star in pies, muffins and other delectable creations. Although they are clearly locally grown, these winter squash lack the visceral connection I have to my own garden pumpkins. For Thanksgiving pie, there is no substitute for my paternal grandmother's heirloom pumpkins and this year's crop is extra-special, produced from seed Maw Hamby saved from one of her last harvests, circa 1993.
|2015 Crop of Maw Hamby's Pumpkins |
|Winter Squash Make Beautiful Decorations |
Heirloom gardeners know successful crop production depends upon plant diversity. This year, for example, was a dismal okra and corn year at Heart & Sole, but tomatoes and peppers produced abundantly. Last year, pumpkins vines failed to yield a single mature squash, but this year proved to be one of my most successful pumpkin crops and to know these hefty orbs, with their unique shapes and pale orange colors, are the same fruit that grew in my grandmother's Happy Valley garden, gives me pause to appreciate the connectivity of heirloom seeds and family.
My paternal grandmother, Ethel Bolick Hamby, better known as Maw to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, loved traveling, reading and watching baseball. She did not love housecleaning, which she called "Idiot Work," or everyday cooking; however, she was locally famous for a couple of dishes, namely her cast-iron skillet upside-down pineapple cake and a chess-type pumpkin pie, made from her own harvest. For Maw's pumpkin pie recipe, read Pumpkin Is Personal.
Recently, as I waited my turn in line at a grocery store check-out, I noticed cans of pumpkin a young woman loaded onto the conveyor belt. "Are you making pie for Thanksgiving?" I asked. She frowned and replied, "I'm not sure what I will do with that. Maybe muffins? Some kind of sweet bread?" I pictured the brown goo inside the can and restrained myself from offering to deliver a real pumpkin to her home. Just like the flavor of heirloom tomatoes trump industrially grown fruits, there is no comparison between a real, heirloom pumpkin, roasted to perfection, and what comes from a grocery store canned product.
Large pumpkins can be daunting for home cooks, but are relatively easy to process and yield an impressive amount of product. For my Thanksgiving pies, I chose a 25 pound pumpkin and used a large chef's knife to cut it into sections. After scooping out seeds to save for next year's planting, I placed the pieces in two large baking dishes with about a half-inch of water. Popped into a hot (425 degree) oven for about an hour, the sections began to collapse and I let them cool before scooping the flesh from the shells. Borrowing a tip from my friend, Angie Rash, I placed the pumpkin in a large salad spinner to allow moisture to drain from the fruit.
Fresh, roasted heirloom pumpkin is delicious and almost impossible to resist tasting as one processes it. The flesh is bright orange and pleasantly sweet. I freeze 2-cup increments in plastic bags and enjoy it throughout the winter in soups, stews, pies, muffins, etc. After tasting heirloom pumpkin, supermarket products have no appeal.
While preparing a pumpkin for processing, I noticed there was a good bit of usable product under the stem and cut a thin slice to taste. Raw pumpkin? Delicious. That baby kale I just picked? Pumpkin seeds? Sounds like a fall salad to me. . . Look for an heirloom pumpkin for your next culinary adventure. The possibilities are endless and the flavor is extraordinary. That canned stuff? Leave it on the shelf.
Heirloom Pumpkin and Kale Salad
1 cup diced raw pumpkin
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 grinds black pepper
Dash sea salt
1 tablespoon Balsamic vinegar
Blend ingredients and refrigerate for up to one hour
Fry 2 strips thick bacon, rendering fat, in a large skillet
Remove bacon and add 4 cups shredded fresh kale to hot grease
Briefly saute kale until wilted, but still bright green
Combine kale, pumpkin, 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds and 1/4 cup feta cheese crumbles in a large bowl. Serve immediately or refrigerate for cold serving. Crumble bacon on top before serving.
*For vegetarian dish, omit bacon and use olive oil to saute kale.