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BEYOND THE GARDEN GATE: Pumpkin Seeds of Wisdom

author: Eileen Argyris

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What’s fall without a pumpkin in our midst. They have become symbols that celebrate the harvest season

TURNS OUT, OLD PETER PETER PUMPKIN EATER, of Mother Goose fame, was a pretty smart guy. Pumpkins are one of the most beneficial foods that Pete, or anyone, could ever eat. From the smaller, sweeter varieties preferred for pies and other sweet and savoury dishes, to the giant varieties mainly grown for winning prizes at fairs, these versatile fruits – yes, fruits – are symbols of our Canadian autumn for good reason.

Golden in more ways than colour, pumpkin shells light up our lives as jack-o’-lanterns. Inside the treasure includes flesh for pies and other treats, and seeds for delicious, nutritious snacks.

Joe Hagerman, of Prince Edward County’s Hagerman Farms, and Ruth Lamb (nee Kellogg) a thirdgeneration farmer in Welcome, both know a heck of a lot about pumpkins. Both raise pumpkins on their farms, and Ruth, whose family has been farming in the neighbourhood since 1919, is a professional whiz with the fruit’s pulpy filling.

Joe says: “My grandfather started growing the Atlantic Giant pumpkins, which can (and did) grow to around 1,000 lbs. or more.” Although Joe says they are not favoured for eating, the giants are great for decoration, hobbies, and competitions. And his grandpa’s entries won their share of those contests over the years.

If you want to create a jack-o’-lantern out of a 1,000 lb. pumpkin, says Joe, “you pretty much need to use a chainsaw to carve it.” Today Hagerman Farms, on Loyalist Parkway near Picton, still sells giant pumpkins, but they’re not as big as in grandpa’s day. Their biggest offerings are 100-200 lbs., still big enough to need more than a carving knife. But they can really put on a great show; you’ll provoke the admiration of your neighbours and you’re sure to be a hit with the kids. And any kid will tell you that carving a pumpkin is part and parcel of a celebration second only to Christmas.

The tradition of carving out jack-o’-lanterns originated in Europe centuries before pumpkins were imported from the New World. Its Celtic roots lie in the legend of one Stingy Jack who managed twice to outsmart the Devil. As a result, Jack, after his death, was allowed neither into heaven nor hell. Jack’s soul, the legend goes, was doomed to roam the earth with only a burning coal stuck inside a turnip to light his way. (The first Irish Jacks were made from turnips, potatoes or beets. Pumpkins work much better.)

Carved jack-o’-lanterns can also be traced back to All Saints Day, a date on the Christian calendar dedicated to celebrating the lives of saints and remembering the dead. Turnips and later pumpkins were carved out to represent the faces of lost souls. On the eve of All Saints also known as All Hallows, children, with their jack-o’-lanterns in hand, would go door-to-door begging for soul cakes to commemorate the dead.

Pumpkins were first cultivated and consumed by the First Nation peoples of North and South America. In fact, almost every European explorer noted the profusion of pumpkins as they made their forays into the New World. Jacques Cartier recorded their growing in Canada as far back as the 1580s.

It was the First Nation people who introduced the pumpkin as a staple food to the likes of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill and as a result, it became a mainstay in the homesteaders’ diet, its fleshy pulp and plentiful seeds helping to sustain them as they adapted to the harsh realities of the wilderness. Today, we recognize the nutritional qualities of the pumpkin that made it so important to the settlers’ survival: the pulp is a good source of antioxidants and Vitamins A, C, E and B vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and B6, as well as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese and dietary fibre. Pumpkin seeds are rich in protein, minerals, vitamins and Omega-3 fatty acids.

Although pumpkins are no longer considered an everyday staple, they’re hard to ignore in the fall, piled high on old wagons at farmers’ markets and roadside stands, adding brilliant splashes of colour to the fall landscape.

But enough of history and folklore and back to the business of pumpkins.

“You can eat any pumpkin,” Joe advises, but the bigger the pumpkin, the thicker the shell and the less appetizing the filling for discriminating consumers. He adds that the pulpy filling of their giants is fed to cattle and the smallest pumpkins – the gourds – are not for eating, just decoration. Smaller varieties, best for cooking, can ripen in this area in early August, giving bakers a chance to prepare and stockpile delicious dishes (including pies, breads and even casseroles) in plenty of time for Thanksgiving. The larger varieties usually ripen in later August, but are also harvested through September and into early October. These come in numerous colours; the familiar orange-gold, as well as mottled green and orange, even white.

Although some other crops have not fared as well with this summer’s rainy weather, “This year’s pumpkins are looking good,” says Joe. That’s good news for the armies of kids and their parents who will soon be on the hunt for the perfect pumpkin for cooking or carving. Ruth Lamb agrees about the quality of this year’s crop. Her family’s small, self-serve roadside stand that sells only their own homegrown produce will be chock-a-block full of pumpkins this fall.

Ruth Lamb learned her many skills, like most farm kids, at the elbows of her parents. Her mother, Mary Kellogg, was a skilled baker, so, like mother, like daughter. She agreed to share two of her favourites with Watershed, but encourages every baker to experiment and create their own legacy recipes, as she has. The following recipes are tried and true if this is your first venture into pumpkin cuisine.

Pumpkin Chiffon Cheesecake

1 cup graham wafer crumbs
2 tbsp. sugar
¼ cup melted butter

2 envelopes unflavoured gelatin
½ cup cold water
8 oz. pkg. cream cheese
1 ¼ cup sugar
2 eggs, separated
2 ½ cups pumpkin purée
½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. ginger
1 tsp. vanilla
½ pint whipping cream

Crust: Butter an 8-inch spring form pan. Combine wafer crumbs, sugar and butter. Reserve ¼ cup mixture and press remaining mixture into pan. Chill.

Filling: Sprinkle gelatin over cold water; let stand for 5 minutes. Dissolve over hot water then cool. Beat cream cheese until smooth. Gradually beat in 1cup sugar then beat until light and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks, pumpkin, salt, spices, vanilla and gelatin. Beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually beat in remaining ¼ cup sugar until you have stiff peaks.

Whip cream until softly stiff. Fold egg whites and cream into pumpkin mixture. Pour into prepared crumb shell. Garnish with reserved crumbs. Chill until firm

Pumpkin Pie Recipe

9” unbaked pie shell
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
½ tsp. salt
2 tbps. pumpkin pie spice, or spices of your choice
1 2/3 cup pumpkin purée (see below)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
1 cup milk (for richer pie, use all or part evaporated milk)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Mix all dry ingredients, then mix in purée and vanilla. Beat in eggs, then beat in milk. Pour in pie shell. Place in preheated oven, reduce heat immediately to 350°F. Bake 45 minutes or until filling does not “jiggle” when pan is shaken gently. Cool completely.

Pumpkin Purée

For the best texture of pumpkin purée use only pie pumpkins. jack-o’-lantern pumpkins can be used, but the texture will be coarser.

Cut pie pumpkin open and scrape out seeds and membrane. Cut into cubes, leaving skin on. Boil in large pot with just enough water to prevent boiling dry. Cook until fully tender, about ½ hour.

Purée the pumpkin cubes in a food processor. Line a sieve or fine mesh colander with paper towel or a coffee filter and set over a deep bowl. Drain purée for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Purée may be frozen.

Of course, ready-made pumpkin purée may be purchased in canned form, all year round. But, purists will appreciate the opportunity of making their own refinements in the scratch method.

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