By Angela Rabago-Mussi
While Arizona’s weather may not agree, one of the signs that fall has finally arrived are the piles of pumpkins that appear every October in grocery stores and street-corner pumpkin patches. Most of those pumpkins are trucked in from out-of-town fields where the summer heat isn’t so merciless. No matter where they were grown, those bumpy heaps of golden-hued fruit radiate “autumn harvest” like nothing else can.
Carving a jack-o-lantern isn’t the only way to enjoy this seasonal treat. The history of this member of the calabaza (squash) family dates back long before the Pilgrims’ pumpkin pie and gives some ideas of how it can be used today.
Pumpkins originated from South and Central America with roots in indigenous culture – evidence of pumpkin cultivation dates as far back as 5500 B.C. Aztecs in Mexico ate pepitas (pumpkin seeds) raw or in sauces. The toasted green kernels are still popular snacks in Mexico and of course shell-on pumpkin seeds can easily be toasted and flavored with sea salt or chile and lime. Ground pumpkin seeds are the key ingredient in pipian, a type of mole. At Fuego Bistro in Phoenix, toasted pumpkin seeds are used in the green sauce of Pollo Jocòn, a Guatemalan dish.
Along with the tasty seeds, pumpkin can be steamed or baked like other types of squash to use in soups, casseroles and, of course, sweets. There’s the classic Dìa de Los Muertos dessert, calabaza en tacha, candied pumpkin made with piloncillo (a dark brown Mexican sugar). Then there are the popular pumpkin empanadas.
You only have to walk into La Purìsima panaderìa (bakery) in Glendale to see empanadas take an honored place behind the glass counters. Owner Juan and Maricela Arellano say that their pumpkin empanadas have been one of the best-selling items for the 24-year history of their bakery. Juan Arellano inherited the recipe from his father, who owned a bakery in Michoacán, Mexico. “That recipe has been in the family for ages,” says Maricela Arellano.
She tells the story of customers who are especially devoted to the sweets. One longtime customer would come in regularly to stock up with two to three dozen empanadas so that she could freeze them and have them close at hand at all times. The smooth, creamy pumpkin filling is enclosed by a soft, cinnamon-colored crust that is more bread-like than the crisp pie-style crusts used on other types of empanadas. Each day, the Arellanos bake about 150 empanadas de calabaza and on Sundays the number doubles.
Many people prefer canned pumpkin because cooking with fresh pumpkin can seem intimidating, says Todd Berry, executive chef at The Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale. Berry oversees the resort’s restaurants, including Deseo, which offers an adventurous Nuevo Latino menu.
“People usually only think of using pumpkins for decoration, but they can be roasted or boiled just like any other squash,” Berry says. He suggests a simple preparation: clean out the seeds, cut the pumpkin, skin-on, into small chunks and bake in a 350-degree oven until tender. The skin can be easily pulled off after it’s been cooked.
Berry has created pumpkin ravioli using cooked, pureed pumpkin mixed with ricotta cheese as a non-traditional filling. In the fall and winter, he also serves pumpkin soup, which is made with roasted pumpkin that is briefly sautéed and then combined with vegetable stock and just a little cream. The soup can be served hot or chilled with a dusting of ground nutmeg.
Other easy pumpkin uses that Berry recommends are sprinkling toasted whole pumpkin seeds seasoned with sea salt on salads, and serving mashed pumpkin with a little butter and cream in place of mashed potatoes.
So, while pumpkin won’t likely become a diet staple as it was so many years ago, there’s no reason this versatile fruit should be relegated to the front porch this fall.