For pottage and puddings and custards and pies Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.”Pilgrim verse, circa 1633Few things are as emblematic of fall as the mighty pumpkin.Whether carved as a jack-o-lantern, used as a decoration, or bakedin a pie for Thanksgiving, pumpkins seem almost more American thanapple pie.Historically, pumpkins are a very American vegetable. Of course weknow that the pilgrims ate pumpkin at their first Thanksgiving(though it’s only documented at their second Thanksgiving). NativeAmericans have been eating it as a staple for thousands andthousands of years. The oldest pumpkin seeds, found in Mexico, arebelieved to be 7,500-9,000 years old, making them one of the oldestcultivated plants on the planet.These were not the large, hollow, orange pumpkins we think oftoday, but a crooked-neck variety that stored well. Archeologistshave determined that variations of squash and pumpkins werecultivated along river and creek banks along with sunflowers andbeans. This took place long before corn became a staple. After cornbegan to be cultivated, ancient farmers learned to grow squash withthe maize and beans using the “Three Sisters” tradition.Pumpkins were vital for long cold winters. The sweet flesh was usedin numerous ways: roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried. Seedswere used as food and as medicine. Blossoms were added to stews.Dried pumpkin could be stored and ground into flour.Shells were dried and used as bowls and containers to store grain,beans and seeds. They pounded and dried the pumpkin flesh intostrips, and wove the strips into mats which they used for tradingpurposes. And pumpkins were fed to war-horses for extra nutritionbefore and after battle.Whew – talk about a multi-tasking veggie!The settlers added a little European flair to the pumpkin. While weconjure up an image of a Pilgrim woman in a starched white apronholding a pumpkin pie with a perfect crust, the first pumpkin ‘pie’was made quite differently. They cut the top off of a pumpkin,scooped out the seeds, and filled the cavity with cream, honey,eggs and spices. The top was placed back on and then it wascarefully buried in the hot ashes of a cooking fire. When finished,they lifted it from the earth with no pastry shell at all, scoopingthe contents out which resembled a custard.The Pilgrims were also known to make pumpkin beer. They fermented acombination of persimmons, hops, maple sugar and pumpkin to brewwhat must have been one very unique beer.In the early colonies, pumpkin shells were used as a guide forhaircuts to ensure a round and uniform finished cut (think of the‘bowl’ cuts we got as kids). New Englanders were sometimesnicknamed pumpkinheads as a result.Across the world, people use pumpkins in an array of cuisines. Inthe Middle East, pumpkin is used for sweet dishes; in South Asiancountries like India, pumpkin is often cooked with butter, sugar,and spices. In the Guangxi province of China, the leaves of thepumpkin plant are consumed as a cooked vegetable or in soups. InJapan, small pumpkins are served in savory dishes, includingtempura. You have to admit, beer-battered deep-fried roast pumpkinstrips sound pretty good!In Thailand, small pumpkins are steamed with custard inside andserved as a dessert. In Austria, pumpkins are grown primarily forthe seeds, which are pressed for their rich, green oil, similar toa premium extra virgin olive oil; the pumpkin itself is fed tosheep, goats, and cattle. And in Italy, pumpkin is used withcheeses as a savory stuffing for ravioli.Illinois is the largest producer of pumpkins in the U.S., growingthe majority of the 1.5 billion pounds produced in the UnitedStates. Nearly 85 percent of the world’s processed pumpkin ismanufactured in Illinois as well, most of it by food giant Nestleunder the familiar name Libbey’s.Locally, in the Northland our pumpkin patches are small, locallygrown affairs, not factory farms. And that gives growers a chanceto grow different varieties for various uses, like the Sugar Piefor baking, and the Cinderella for soups.The current world record holder for sheer poundage is ChrisStevens’s 1,810-pound Atlantic Giant pumpkin, which in October 2010surpassed the previous record of 1,725 pounds. And where, might youask did this monster pumpkin weigh in? At the Stillwater HarvestFest in Minnesota! (OK, so he did grow it in New Richmond,Wis.)When it comes to eating those giant pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns,keep in mind these pumpkins have been bred specifically to haverigid, fibrous walls and hollow interiors; they’re not bred forflavor. While the seeds are great roasted up, look for differentpumpkins like Sugar Pie if you want really tender, sweetmeat.Plopping open a can of processed pumpkin might seem the easy way togo, but if you try, just once, using a local pumpkin for yourrecipe, you’ll see what has made the pumpkin the prize vegetable ofNorth America for over 7,000 years. Don’t be shy – the taste isworth a try.How to Cook With PumpkinBefore cooking a pumpkin do the following:Choose a pumpkin that feels firm and heavy for its size.Cut open the pumpkin and remove the seeds and stringymaterial.Cut into wedges or halves depending upon cooking method.Boiling:In large pot with approximately an inch of water, add two pounds ofchopped pumpkin pieces (the larger the chunks, the longer it takesto cook); bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and let simmer. Stiroccasionally. Larger pieces take between 20 – 25 minutes to cook;cubing the pumpkin into half-inch cubes results in a quickercooking time of 10 – 15 minutes. Cook until you can pierce theflesh easily with a fork. When cubing pumpkin, it’s easiest toremove the skin first with a potato peeler; when using largerchunks, just peel the flesh from the skin after it’s been cooked.Drain and let cool.Steaming:Fill large covered pot with 1 inch water; place a steaming rackinside. Add pumpkin pieces/chunks, cover, and bring to a boil.Reduce heat and steam for 30 minutes (or until tender). Removeflesh from skin once pumpkin has been drained and cooled.Oven baking:This is a preferred method. Cut pumpkin in half crosswise and scoopout the seeds and stringy material. If the flesh looks fairly dry,cover the cut side of each pumpkin half with a piece of foil. If itis moist leave it uncovered. Place the pumpkin halves on a bakingsheet and bake, foil side up in a 350 °F oven for about 1-1/2 hoursor until the flesh is very tender when pierced with a fork. Don’tworry if the edges are browned. The natural sugars actuallycaramelize and give it a rich, complex flavor. When it is coolenough to handle, scoop out the flesh.Once the flesh has been removed using any of the above methods,mash with a fork or potato masher, or puree with a food processoror blender until smooth; then simply measure out the amount youneed.In general a 5 lb. pumpkin will yield approximately 4 cups ofmashed, cooked pumpkin pulp.If you’re using a recipe that calls for canned pumpkin, figure one29 oz. can is equal to about 3-1/4 cups fresh, cooked, and pureedpumpkin. A 16 oz. can of pumpkin is the equivalent of approximately2 cups of mashed pulp.If your pumpkin pulp is too watery you may drain it in a sieve oryou can cook it down to a thicker consistency in a sauce pan.Depending upon your recipe, place one cup (or 1/2 cup if that iswhat most of your recipes call for) into a sealable freezer bag.Flatten like a slice of bread, mark the date and freeze.Cooked pumpkin pulp freezes extremely well, with no loss of qualityeven when frozen for months.When you are ready to bake your favorite pumpkin bread, soup, pieetc., just place the freezer bag on the counter. It will thaw inabout 20 minutes.Easy Delicious Pumpkin Soup1 cup cream or milk1 onion, thinly sliced1 bay leaf1 cup chicken broth1 cup pumpkin, cooked and mashed1-1/2 tbsp melted butter1-1/2 tbsp flour1/2 tsp saltdash of pepper1. Combine milk, onions and bay leaf in saucepan. Slowly bringto a boil. Strain, then combine strained onion and bay leaf withchicken broth and mashed pumpkin (save the milk).2. In a separate pan, make a roux by combining the butter and flourand cooking over low heat for 5 minutes. Add milk mixture to rouxslowly and whisk until the soup is smooth.3. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer for 5 minutes to bring outthe flavors.Garnish with dried cranberries, parsley, and cream.Toasted Pumpkin Seeds2 cups pumpkin seeds1 tbsp oil (not olive oil)1 tbsp butter1-2 tsp salt1. Separate the seeds from pumpkin pulp. No need to wash them,just pull the fibers and excess pulp off. Leaving remnants of theflesh on the seeds gives them a wonderful pumpkin flavor.2. In a bowl coat seeds with oil, butter and salt. Spread and bakeon a baking sheet at 225° until seeds are golden, crisp and dry,about 1 hour. Stir frequently to prevent scorching. Cool andenjoy.Options to flavor the oil/butter mixture:1 tsp Worcestershire sauce1 tsp soy saucechili powder to tastegarlic salt to tastecayenne pepper to tasteseasoned salt to tasteAwesome Pumpkin PancakesA super simple recipe with amazing results; this is a greatbreakfast to prepare for guests. They will think you spent hours inthe kitchen. The flavor of warm pumpkin pancakes with local maplesyrup is a wonderful combination.2 cups Bisquick2 tbsp brown sugar2 tsp cinnamon2 eggs1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk1/2 cups cooked mashed pumpkin2 tbsp vegetable oil1 tsp vanilla1. In a bowl, combine Bisquick, brown sugar and cinnamon. Inanother bowl, combine the eggs, milk, pumpkin, oil and vanilla.Stir into dry ingredients and mix well.2. Pour batter by 1/2 cupfuls onto a lightly greased hot griddle;turn when bubbles form on top of pancakes. Cook until second sideis golden brown. Serve with butter and local maple syrup.