Pumpkin dishes

The Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009 -- when a lousy harvest resulted in panic-buying and hoarding -- has us looking at pumpkin in a new way. (Photo by Bob Fila)

Pumpkins aren't just for pie anymore. For as long as there has been Thanksgiving, it seems, Americans have clung stubbornly to the notion that pumpkin, unlike its sister squashes, is meant to be served on a crust and under whipped cream.

And on only one day each year.

The Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009, when a lousy harvest resulted in (OK, modest) panic-buying and hoarding, appears to have caught our attention, and we are looking at the pumpkin in a new way.

"We think of pumpkins only as that Halloween thing," said Donna Crivello, owner of Donna's restaurants, who makes pumpkin ravioli and pumpkin risotto.

"Maybe we just think a pumpkin is too big and too hard to break open," she said, then added this advice: Simply prick the skin and bake in a slow oven, and pumpkin becomes easy to skin and cube. Bake it longer, and the pumpkin flesh will be soft enough for a pumpkin soup.

"You can use the smaller pie-sized pumpkins in almost all the same recipes that call for winter squash," says Teresa O'Connor, who writes the blog Seasonal Wisdom and is a co-author of "Grocery Gardening."

"Instead of potatoes, try mashing cooked pumpkins with different toppings like feta cheese, nuts, yogurt, cinnamon, cumin or other spices for a healthy side dish."

Healthy is right.

Pumpkins are packed with vitamin A in the form of cancer-fighting beta carotene, not to mention the B complex and C vitamins, as well as potassium, calcium and iron, O'Connor says.

Pumpkins have a fun side, too. Pastry chef Cindy Selby, owner of Blondie's Baking Company, a cafe in North Beach in Anne Arundel County, has made pumpkin flan and created individual creme brulees inside tiny pumpkins. "It is cute and a fun thing to do," she said.

"I just love fall. It is my favorite time of year, and it begins with pumpkin and maple syrup," said Selby, who created a recipe for a dessert bread that includes both.

You don't know what you have until it is gone, and home cooks were shocked in August and early September when they realized there was a shortage of canned pumpkin.

Grocery shelves are usually stocked with the surplus canned pumpkin from the previous season, and a poor growing season in 2009 and a rain-soaked harvest in Morton, Ill., the pumpkin capital of the world, kept the tractors from the fields, where the pumpkin crop was left to rot.

Nestle, which cans nearly 85 percent of the pumpkin sold in the U.S. under its Libby's label, had nothing to sell until the 2010 harvest — reported to be a good one — began to roll in in mid-September.

Some dedicated pumpkin fans even turned to eBay, where, the Associated Press reported, cans that normally sell for $1.50, were selling for $6 and $7.

In Maryland, this pumpkin growing season has been uneven — some farms received more rain than others — but generally good, said Brian Butler, the Carroll County extension agent for the University of Maryland and the state's unofficial pumpkin expert.

"It has been a little bit dry in places and a little bit too hot in places," said Butler. "Hot temperatures keep the pollination down." Maryland, he said, is almost ideally suited geographically to grow 30 or 40 varieties of pumpkin.

It is heat and drought that make pumpkin a staple of the vegetarian diet in his home country, said Qayum Karzai, the owner of Baltimore's award-winning Afghan restaurant, The Helmand.

" Afghanistan has little refrigeration and no winter vegetables. And pumpkin has a long shelf life, so all these things make it popular in Afghanistan," he said.