It’s the week before Halloween, which means that many people will undoubtedly be carving up that Halloween Jack o’ lantern. But of course, in the food world, we’ve been eating pumpkins, and other types of hard winter squash, for weeks now. Indeed, if I see one more recipe for pumpkin cheese cake, I might… well, I’ve already screamed. That might just be because I’m more of a fan of pumpkin pie than cheesecake, but it seems to be ubiquitous this year.

In any case, pumpkins; members of the squash family. Related to softer summer squashes (zucchini), as well as gourds (the smaller inedible varieties of squash) and distantly related to melons. Squashes are native to North America, most likely Mexico, where they are traditionally grown alongside corn and beans in a symbiotic system known as The Three Sisters. Pumpkins and squash were introduced to Europeans by Christopher Columbus, and their cultivation was mostly due to Spanish and Portuguese explorers.

The United States grows 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins each year, most intended for processing. Pumpkins are fairly fussy plants and in the summer of 2009, rains in Illinois wiped out much of the US harvest, causing a shortage of canned pumpkin throughout the US Thanksgiving season right up until the harvest began this year.

Although many varieties are grown for eating, giant pumpkins have become a form of gardening sport. Howard Dill of Nova Scotia cultivated and patented the seeds to grow his famous giant pumpkins and now pumpkins as large as 1700 pounds show up at fall and winter fairs around North America (having grown up in Nova Scotia, I always recall Dill’s giant pumpkins being one of the highlights of the Atlantic Winter Fair).

Almost all of the pumpkin is edible, and can be prepared by baking, roasting, boiling or steaming. Pumpkin seeds can be rinsed and roasted, or pressed into oil. We eat pumpkin plain and mashed, in pie, in a variety of soups, or added to stews.

Not all pumpkin varieties make great eating, however, and anyone who chops up their Jack o’ Lantern on the day after Halloween hoping to turn it into pie may find the result slightly bitter and stringy. Pie pumpkins tend to be smaller varieties such as Baby Bear, Small Sugar, Spooktacular or Sugar Treat.
These have been bred to have a sweeter flesh and generally weight 2 to 5 pounds.

For cooking purposes, many varieties of squash can be used with pumpkin interchangeably – I prefer my “pumpkin” pie made out of butternut squash. When choosing a pumpkin or squash for cooking, it is best to determine its use beforehand; pumpkin and butternut squash tends to make a better soup, while varieties like the acorn or turban squash lend themselves better to stuffing and baking.

Most winter squash is extremely high in Vitamin A (145% of the recommended daily amount in 1 cup), as well as Vitamin C, potassium and fibre.

Winter squash and pumpkins are hardy if unblemished and firm, but are delicate and prone to decay if they get bruised or scarred. Look for specimens with firm, unblemished rinds that are dull (not shiny) in colour. of course, if you’re selecting a larger pumpkin for Jack O’ Lantern purposes, blemishes are less important as long as the pumpkin has a nice flat bottom and a smooth section that will accommodate carving.

Pumpkin Lace Cookies
From Canadian Living

1/3 cup (75 mL) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (50 mL) butter
1/4 cup (50 mL) corn syrup
1.2 cup (125 mL) all-purpose flour
1/4 cup (50 mL) pumpkin seed
1 pinch ground ginger

In small saucepan, bring sugar, butter and corn syrup to boil over medium heat; remove from heat. Whisk in flour, pumpkin seeds and ginger.

Baking no more than 6 at a time, drop by scant tablespoonfuls (15 mL), about 3 inches (8 cm) apart, onto parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Bake in centre of 350°F (180°C) oven until slightly darkened, about 10 minutes. Let stand on pan on rack for 2 minutes to firm; transfer to rack and let cool. (Make-ahead: Layer between waxed paper in airtight container and store for up to 3 days.)

Butternut Squash and Spinach Risotto
I had this dish years ago at a restaurant in San Francisco and loved it so much I recreated it at home.

6-8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, divided into 4 Tbsp and 1 Tbsp
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup butternut squash, peeled, and finely diced
1 bunch spinach, blanched and chopped (about 1 cup when cooked)
2 cups arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup shelled hazelnuts (filberts) toasted

Heat broth in medium sized saucepan and keep warm over low heat. Melt 4 Tbsp of butter in a large saucepan; add onion and butternut squash. Cook over medium heat until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add rice to onion and squash. Cook 1 to 2 minutes. Add wine. Cook, stirring constantly until wine has been absorbed by the rice or evaporated. Add a few ladles of broth, just enough to barely cover rice. Cook over medium heat until broth has been absorbed. Continue cooking and stirring rice, adding a little bit of broth at a time, cooking and stirring until it is absorbed, until the rice is tender, but still firm to the bite, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add spinach with last ladle of stock, as well as nutmeg ans salt and pepper to taste.

During the last minutes of cooking, add remaining tablespoon of butter and 1/3 cup Parmesan. At this point the rice should have a creamy consistency. Serve with remaining grated Parmesan and garnished with toasted hazelnuts.

Serves 4 to 6.