kickoff: pumpkinpalooza 2012

If you’re living some high-minded experiment to stop eating processed food, gearing up for a project like making good use of a garden full of pumpkins takes some basic preparation. Namely, putting up plenty of pumpkin puree.

Making your own puree is truly no rocket science, but depending on the scale you attempt, there is a PIA factor  (pain-in-the-ass ) you should know about up front.   Admittedly, canned pumpkin is inexpensive, convenient and you can buy organic, so why bother with the messy real ones?

I don’t have an explanation for it, but it is a fact.  I would rather spend time in my own kitchen listening to interesting stuff on the radio while making my own ingredients than stuck in traffic, running from store to store and standing in line.  Often the amount of time invested ends up being about the same, so arguments for the time-saving properties of convenience food can be kind of misinformed.

Other times, the time invested to DIY is a day-or-two long,  big, fat, frustratingly sweaty mess. Only you can decide if a project is worthwhile for you, but do be sure to try it once before you dismiss it.  You may surprise yourself by finding that you genuinely enjoyed something television tells you is a burden you should hate.

I’m not sugar-coating anything here; there are plenty of times I’m about halfway through a project that’s not going so smoothly and I wish I had just gone to the flippin’ store like everybody else.

What is it that keeps me coming back for more?  It’s that little ooomph of satisfaction I get seeing the stacks of something I made myself. I admit that’s a bit of a buzz.  Especially if it’s something I grew myself too.

And, once you’ve been able to slap together something both lightening-fast and unbelievably awesome from your freezer & jars, well, that’s when you’ll become a true believer too.

I’m utterly spoiled by the caliber of my everyday food and I simply can’t afford to eat this way if I don’t do the work myself.  And am I a total geek if I get jazzed up about the fact that I spent four dollars on a package of organic seeds and ended up with a whole mess o’pumpkins that can be enjoyed all sorts of ways, not to mention the roasted seeds and the juice?  Sounds like a satisfying return on an investment to me…

Trust me, I was not born with a love of gardening or provisioning. But I am increasingly addicted to the joy of growing the food that ends up on my plate.  Now that I’ve had a chance to taste varieties of fruits & veggies I can rarely buy at the store at their absolute peak of deliciousness, I know the Nirvana of a 100 yard foodshed is no myth… which brings me to the kick-off of pumpkinpalooza.

I told you about my pumpkin project, remember?  In part of my freshly plowed field, I grew two varieties. The first is a variety called New England Pie, or Small Sugar. It is a classic 1863 heirloom favored for its sweet, fine-grained, stringless yellow flesh. Perfect for use in pies, soups, stews and roasted vegetable platters. They’re very cute decorative or Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins with their bright orange color and charming 8 – 10” shape. They were easy to grow and uniformly cute. And now, I’ve got 25 of them, and I’m making use of them if it kills me…

The second variety, Styrian naked-seeded, I grew more for the cows than the people. Whether or not I’ll do it again is yet to be determined. The pumpkins are handsome and a great addition to holiday decorations, but the flesh is kind of bland and starchy which is why it’s better for livestock than for the table. The real payoff is in the unique seeds. They are hulless and absolutely delicious. In their native Austria, these pumpkins are utilized as a good source of oil after roasting and pressing the seeds which is an idea I find intriguing, but will file away in the back of my brain for another day. If you’ve tried it, do share – I’d love to hear more…

Anyway, back to the issue at hand: pumpkin puree.  I do not have a root cellar or place to store bulky pumpkins that will keep them from either rotting, freezing or both before I get around to using them. Since most pumpkin recipes call for puree or pie filling anyway, I decided freezing puree was the way to go.

So, I took 24 of my organic pie pumpkins, scrubbed the skins clean, scooped out the seeds & goop – save those seeds for roasting later –  halved or quartered them, put them cut side down on rimmed parchment lined trays and roasted them at 350˚ for about 45-50 minutes, taking care to keep them from burning.

You could also cook the pumpkin in the microwave or by boiling on the stove top, but I think roasting the pumpkin adds a richness to the finished dish that I really like.

After roasting, I let the pumpkin cool and scoop the flesh into a big bowl.  I can only fit about 8 pumpkins into my oven at one time, so I had to repeat this part three times.  8 pumpkins makes a more pleasant afternoon and still gives you that satisfaction of seeing the fruits of your labor in the freezer. Two is probably more pumpkin than the average family eats in a year. 24 might just be a little crazy unless you really, really like pumpkin.

Another thing to consider when making big batches in ordinary home kitchens with typical refrigerator space and cooking utensils, do you have containers that can handle the size of  24 pumpkins? I happen to have extra refrigerator space and duplicate bowls, colanders and cheesecloth, and plenty of food grade 5 gallon buckets, so I knew I could accommodate the overflow of pumpkin glop.

Nothing’s more frustrating than figuring out after you’re already elbow deep in some kind of project that you’ve got a runaway mess on your hands and no place to put it. It’s pretty informative to work through a moderately sized run first so you can figure out your system before you find yourself like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.

I use a food mill for the next step, but if you don’t have one you can use a food processor, blender or press it though a screen strainer. I run each bowl of roasted pumpkin through the mill three separate times to be sure I get all the pulp I can.  I empty the spent discards into a big bucket for the compost pile, and repeat until I’ve milled every bit three times. You could make butter from the discard, but I dislike pumpkin butter and around here, it will not go to waste. I can use all compost I can get, and I have pigs who are happy to eat up what I don’t so it’s not at all the same as throwing food in the garbage.

You’ll notice that at this point, your puree is more watery than store-bought which will present some frustration for you if you are trying to follow recipes written for commercial pumpkin puree.

To correct this,  I line a colander with cheesecloth (not the loosely woven kind from the grocery store), an old pillowcase, non-terrycloth tea towel, old dress shirt or other tightly woven cloth, nest it inside a deep bowl and fill with my puree.  Fold the cheesecloth over the puree and cover with a snug fitting plate. The plate will add a bit of pressure and weight to help press the liquid from the pumpkin pulp and into the bowl below.

Let this drain at least overnight or until the consistency matches that of store-bought canned pumpkin puree.  Check early to see if the bowl needs drained – it may fill up quickly. Your puree won’t drain properly if the colander is setting in a bowl of liquid.

Pumpkin puree is a low acid food not safe for canning in jars. If you have any questions about the safety of preserving foods, the National Center for Home Food Preservation maintains a useful site; you can check it out here.

So instead, I filled quart sized freezer bags with two cups of puree and froze them.

A couple of little things considered up front make this much more efficient – first, label your bags while they’re empty. Fold the tops down so they stand up with the opening spread wide and carefully plop your puree into the bags. Squeeze out all the air, and smooth the filled bags flat on a cookie sheet or plate to freeze, so when they are solid you can stand them up in a box and they take up as little freezer space as possible.

And, that’s it. Isn’t that a beautiful sight?

Now, get out there and get yourself some pie pumpkins so you can create a stash of homemade pumpkin puree ready and waiting to knock that Thanksgiving pie out of the park. Be sure to keep at least one pumpkin intact though – it takes more than one trick to make it a -palooza so you’ll want to keep your pumpkin options open…

What unexpected and delicious ways do you do pumpkin?

Up next?  Rustic Apple Pumpkin pie…

11 thoughts on “kickoff: pumpkinpalooza 2012

  1. We just used the last of last year’s frozen pumpkin in soup. I’m like you. I know it’s cheap from a can but there’s something about doing it myself.

  2. Pumpkin makes a great additive to dog food and dog diets. I want to start feeding raw/natural foods to my dogs and part of that will be Pumpkin. It’s best if you can mix a few tablespoons with a few tablespoons of rice and just serve it up over whole meats (organs, bones and all). This is a very healthy diet for most dogs!

  3. I experienced the juice factor last week, using some of last year’s frozen pumpkin puree to make pumpkin pancakes. Even adjusting ingredients, I’ve never had pancakes as moist as those! Delicious, though. Nothing says fall like the smell of pumpkin, cinnamon and cloves in the kitchen!

    1. I just downed a glass of 1/2 pumpkin-1/2 orange juice and it’s pretty yummy! Not as sweet as straight orange – just right : )

      Those pancakes sound pretty yummy – I haven’t had them for a while. I’ll bet there’s nothing but the best maple syrup at your house : )

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