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Every October for the past 32 years, the hills of Half Moon Bay, California come alive with the color of orange, a sea of over 3,000 tons of pumpkins. Pumpkin mania transforms this quaint coastal town into a gourdish Brigadoon, with some quarter of a million people descending upon it to gawk at pumpkins the size of Mini Coopers, eat more pumpkin food than you thought imaginable (including pumpkin wine, which admittedly was not a hit), and take pumpkin body peel spa treatments with a mask of pumpkin, oatmeal, cream, cornmeal, and honey. “Honestly, you smell like pumpkin pie when you’re finished,” says Stacy Cooper Dent of the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay, where the treatments are given.
“The whole town goes crazy. Pumpkin this, pumpkin that. To see this kind of excitement around a gourd is kind of amazing,” says Peter Rudolph, chef of Navio restaurant at the Ritz Carlton. Rudolph prepares a six-course pumpkin menu that last year included a pumpkin and foie gras terrine with gingerbread and frisee salad, chestnut royale with pumpkin bisque and white truffles, and loup de mer with grilled pumpkin, candied turnips, pecans and creamy apple broth.
And you thought pumpkins were only for carving and smashing.
Rudolph gets his pumpkins from Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm, which grows 50 varieties. “We’ve worked really hard with chefs to get the best for cooking and eating pumpkins,” says owner John Muller, who likens himself to a grape grower or small vintner. “Half Moon Bay is the Napa Valley for pumpkins,” he says, proudly.
Rudolph uses five kinds of Muller’s pumpkins: Fairytale, Sugar Pie, Zucca, Red Kabocha and Cinderella, each for a different purpose. He uses the Fairytale, a fairly new variety, for braising because its fibers hold together while cooking and don’t let the meat fall apart. Zucca, from Italy, and Kabocha, from Japan, are good for purees and sautéing because of their density. The high sugar content Sugar Pie is traditional for pumpkin pie, though Rudolph blends it with other pumpkins for more depth of flavor.
Muller doesn’t limit his pumpkins to haute cuisine, however. “We have one now called Golden Delicious, that’s strictly for baby food. It’s smaller with a finer grain that makes it easier to mush up,” says Mueller. Mueller gives his wife Eda credit for expanding his pumpkin horizons. Eda literally scans the globe to bring in seeds. She grows a few pumpkins and cooks with them before the Mullers decide to grow the pumpkins commercially. Marina di Chioggia is one of 15 Italian varieties the farm produces. It’s a squat pumpkin with light green, nubby skin and deep orange flesh. “I like to bake with it and use it in risotto,” Eda says. “And when you carve it on an angle the contrast between the flesh and skin gives you a 3-D effect.”
Some pumpkins are incredibly specialized. Francisco’s Blossoms, as the name implies, is grown strictly for the blossoms, which chefs stuff. “It’s not much of a pumpkin,” John acknowledges. And the Ka Kai, a gray pumpkin with orange stripes, is prized for its seeds, which are not only plentiful but hulled as well.
Pumpkin passion isn’t limited to Half Moon Bay, though. One of the more fascinating pumpkin subcultures involves people who grow pumpkins for their sheer size. The world record is 1,337.5 pounds. Ray Waterman, founder of the World Pumpkin Confederation in Collins, NY, predicts a 2,000-pounder within 10 years. Why do people grow pumpkins that resemble Cinderella’s carriage after midnight? “Why do people climb Everest? It’s something for mankind to do,” Waterman says, unapologetically. (If you want to try your luck, the Atlantic Giant is the Incredible Hulk of pumpkin varieties.)
If pumpkin weight lifting isn’t your thing, here are some cooking ideas.
Annie Cuggino, chef at the Veritable Quandary in Portland, Ore uses the drier Kabocha squash on pizza with pecorino cheese, rosemary, and walnuts. (Nuts, especially walnuts and pecans, are great partners with pumpkin.) She also pairs pumpkin with game birds and any kind of pork.
I love to sauté or oven roast cubes of pumpkin by itself or with other winter vegetables (such as sweet potatoes, parsnips or carrots) in olive oil or in a mixture of olive oil and butter. Garlic, sage and rosemary are good seasonings, but you can also try something more exotic, like cumin or cardamom. Cuggino tries to stay away from the pumpkin trinity of clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Instead, she’ll combine roasted poblano peppers with pumpkin, which sort of makes sense since both are New World natives. Pumpkin puree seasoned with allspice, nutmeg or ginger is nice under grilled fish. (Rudolph prefers strongly flavored fish like wild sea bass, sardines or mackerel.) Pumpkin is also great with pastas (in the sauce or stuffing), in risottos, and in soups with beans and perhaps some hearty greens such as chard or kale.
Of course, pumpkin pie is the dish most associated with pumpkin. Early pumpkin pies were made by filling a hollowed out shell with milk, apples, and sweeteners like honey and molasses, then baking it. Spices were probably limited until clipper ships made them more common. Even today, most pumpkin pies are pretty ho-hum. Not so the following recipe adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukens. My wife said it was the best pumpkin pie she’d ever eaten. If you can’t find a good pumpkin, any hard-shelled squash, especially butternut, will do. And for some dishes like pie or soup, canned pumpkin can be a perfectly adequate substitute.