Pumpkins are for more than just carving: North Fork Chef

A white Boer pumpkin stuffed with pumpkin polenta. (Credit: John Ross)

Across the United States 90,000 acres of farmland are devoted to pumpkins, producing about 1.5 billion pounds annually. About 15 percent of the crop is processed into canned pumpkin purée and the area around Peoria, Ill., is the largest producing area. Libby’s (a Nestlé company) and Seneca Foods are the major processors.

On the North Fork, pumpkins are a huge agricultural and agritainment product. Al Krupski Jr. was one of the earliest pioneers in this business. He said that after many years of growing potatoes, cabbage and cauliflower for the wholesale market, in 1976 the Krupskis opened their Main Road farm stand and began growing pumpkins and many other vegetables.

Al found that people enjoyed going out into the field and picking their own pumpkins with the help of their children. This led to hayrides and some Halloween-themed attractions like the corn maze and scary figures around the farm. By the early 1980s the Krupskis began to grow many different pumpkin varieties in sizes ranging from the little Jack Be Little to the huge sugar pumpkins with colors from orange to beige to gray and white.

Krupski and many other farmers have grown their pumpkin businesses into a major fall attraction, but Al says that he likes the entertainment part of the business to complement rather than dominate the main business of growing vegetables. After years of buying jack-o’-lanterns, many people are discovering that cooking fresh pumpkin is a new way to enjoy the fall harvest.

Varieties for cooking
The first choice for cooking is the Long Island cheese pumpkin. It is a squat, medium-sized pumpkin, beige in color, that resembles a wheel of cheese. It is an heirloom variety that has a long history in America. Its growth was revived by seed-saver Ken Ettlinger in the late 1970s and, along with other heirloom varieties, has become very popular today. Its dense flesh, mild flavor and fine grain make it excellent for many recipes.

The white Boer pumpkin is another variety that has a dense texture and squat shape with a white exterior and orange flesh. Other local cooking varieties are the small sugar pumpkin (especially good for its seeds), the Jack Be Little (great for stuffing) and the Peconic gray. Winter squash such as Hubbard and butternut are in the same family as pumpkins and are a very good substitute in pumpkin recipes.

Varieties for carving
The big jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are the most popular for carving because of their large size, bright orange color and uniform shape. The white pumpkin is a good complement to the jack-o’-lantern, and the small sugar pumpkins make good little brothers and sisters.

How to make pumpkin purée
Wash the dirt off a medium-sized cheese pumpkin. Place it on a cutting board and break off the stem. Using a large chef’s knife, cut it in half from top to bottom. Then cut the halves in half to make quarters and finally cut the quarters in half to end up with eighths. Cut out the seeds and stringy material with a paring knife.

Line a sheet pan with foil and spray with no-stick. Lay the pieces of pumpkin on their sides on the sheet pan. Roast them in a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes, remove and cool.

Cut the skins off with a paring knife and cut the flesh into chunks. Purée the chunks in your food processor until smooth. It is best to purée a whole pumpkin at once. You will end up with about 8 cups of purée. You can put excess purée in zip-lock bags and freeze them for future use. The purée works in any recipe that calls for canned pumpkin.

Stuffed white Boer pumpkin with pumpkin polenta
Purchase a white Boer pumpkin from the farm stand. (Mine weighed about 8 pounds.) Cut out a wide lid as you would for a jack-o’-lantern. Scrape out the seeds and stringy pumpkin with a spoon. Save about 2 cups of the seeds.

Line a sheet pan with foil and spray with no-stick. Place the whole pumpkin with its lid on the sheet pan and roast at 325 degrees until just tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Remove and set aside.

Rinse the pumpkin seeds and remove as much of the stringy material as possible.

Line a small sheet pan with foil and spray with no-stick. Spread the seeds out on the tray and roast at 325 degrees for 30 minutes.

Remove seeds to a bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cumin and 1 teaspoon turmeric. Place back in the oven and cook for another 30 minutes.

Trim 1 quart of Brussels sprouts and cut them in half.

Cut 1 small head of cauliflower into small florets.

Peel and cut 2 sweet potatoes into 1-inch chunks.

Place 1/4 cup olive oil into a large bowl. Add 1 tablespoon turmeric, 2 teaspoons cumin, 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss the cut vegetables in this mixture and spread them out on a foil-lined sheet pan. Roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes and remove.

In a large saucepan heat 2 cups milk and 3 cups water to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and whisk in 1 cup cornmeal. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes.

Stir in 2 cups pumpkin purée (from above, or use canned) and remove from the heat.

Stir in 1/4 cup chopped fresh sage and 1 cup grated American grana cheese (or Parmigiano Reggiano).

To assemble, combine the cooked vegetables and the polenta mixture in a large bowl and check for seasoning. Spoon this mixture into the cooked pumpkin and sprinkle the roasted seeds on top. Place back in a 250-degree oven to reheat.

Serves 6-8.

John Ross