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Pumpkins are a delicious fall treat

POSTED October 31, 2009 12:14 a.m.
Have you heard that there is a shortage of pumpkins this year? That might be true in the Northeast, but it isn’t true for most of country. There are hundreds of pumpkins and squash varieties, but the two main groups we think of when we say pumpkin are the jack-o’-lantern and the pie pumpkin.
In 2008, there were fewer pie pumpkins, but the shortage didn’t show up in stores. Recently, the current pie pumpkin crop is being harvested and has helped to put pumpkin pie cans back on the shelf. More than 90 percent of all processed pumpkins are grown in Illinois on about 22,000 acres, but jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are grown in every state.
The current crop of pumpkins was planted late in most of the northern states due to cold and wet weather this spring. In some areas of the Northeast, there were bacterial and fungal disease problems due to cold, wet weather during the summer. Pumpkins in cool areas were slow to set fruit — some fields won’t have many orange pumpkins before Halloween.
All pumpkins and several squash varieties can be used in pies, but the best pie pumpkins are small sweet pumpkins without the watery and stringy consistency of jack-o’-lantern pumpkins. The typical processed pumpkin is a tan-colored squash shaped like a football, not at all like an orange jack-o’-lantern pumpkin. If you can’t find small pie pumpkins, you can use butternut and buttercup squash as an equal substitute for pumpkin in the recipe.
Pumpkins are a good source of vitamins. Winter squash, like butternut and acorn squash, are left on the vine until mature with a hard rind; they are usually baked for eating. Summer squash, such as zucchini, are picked off the vine while still green with a soft rind.
Zucchini can be eaten raw or cooked. They are eaten fresh and do not store well.
Winter squash, like pumpkins, can be stored at 50 degrees until next spring. For best storage, they should have a 3- or 4-inch piece of stem and should not have been exposed to a frost.
If you want to have a decorated pumpkin but also save it for later eating, you can use tempera paint or markers to make your designs on the outside without cutting it open.
The pumpkin rind is removed by peeling, and then the flesh is boiled until soft. Drain the pot and mash the pumpkin until it is soft; it can then be frozen and will last for months. If you use fresh pumpkin in a recipe for pumpkin bread or pie, you will taste the difference and may not want to go back to the canned stuff.
Small pumpkins can be eaten as a vegetable: steamed, boiled or battered and fried. They can also be sliced and eaten raw with dip as an appetizer. University of Illinois Extension’s Web site (www.urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins) has information on how to select and cook fresh pumpkin. Besides the standard recipes for pumpkin nut bread and roasted pumpkin seeds, there are many other recipes, such as pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin-apple soup.
You can save the seeds for planting next year with all the vine crops. The only problem is that many of the crops you purchase as plants in the spring or as seeds with named hybrid varieties will not come true from seed. In other words, the vines might have “kids” that don’t look like the parents in the crop produced next year. If the seeds or plants are labeled as hybrids, you might get good crops. If the crop was labeled as an heirloom, next year’s crop will match this year’s crop, if there were no other nearby varieties that could cross-pollinate your plants.
— E-mail questions to Jeff Rugg, University of Illinois Extension at jrugg@illinois.edu.

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