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Beyond carving and pie, pumpkins also offer savory delights this time of year

C. W. Cameron

Turn the calendar to October and soon, pumpkins are everywhere. As Halloween gets closer, there are large displays at every grocery store, and pumpkin patches sprawl in church parking lots and school courtyards.

Bright orange pumpkins bursting with personality and just waiting to be turned into Halloween decor are hard to resist. My problem with those pumpkins? Not content with a pumpkin for seasonal décor, I want to be able to cook my pumpkin. After all, it's a fruit, is it not?

Have you ever tried to cook one of those jack o'-lantern pumpkins? You could bake it for hours and you'd never get the smooth, dense purée you need for recipes or soups.

To get the lowdown on pumpkins for cooking, I went to America's largest retailer of pumpkin puree, Libby's. S pokesperson Rox O'Hearn confirmed they sell 75 percent to 80 percent of all canned pumpkin in the U.S. That's not including the pumpkin that goes into cans of pumpkin pie filling, another animal entirely.

"The pumpkins we grow are different (from jack o'-lantern pumpkins). They're a proprietary seed strain, 'Libby's Select Dickinson' pumpkins, and we contract with growers to raise this particular variety," O'Hearn said.

Libby's pumpkins are buff colored and oval, not bright orange and round. Their dense, meaty flesh is perfect for making canned pumpkin, O'Hearn said, and they've been using this pumpkin variety for 75 years.

All of Libby's pumpkins are grown within a 50-mile radius of Morton, Ill. "As with any other farm crop, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature," O'Hearn said. Dramatic rainfall like the area received in 2009 led to a dramatic shortage in pumpkins. A shortage of pumpkins one year can actually bleed over into the next as there's no pumpkin in the warehouse to keep customers satisfied until the next crop can be harvested and processed.

Fortunately, the 2011 crop looks to be in pretty good shape. "So far, so good," O'Hearn said.

Rajendra Narine is growing pumpkins on his 1-acre property in a Kennesaw, Ga., subdivision. He sells his pumpkins at farmers markets under the name "Homegrown Vegetables." Narine doesn't grow bright orange jack o'-lantern pumpkins either. He ends up with a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. To convince customers that the pumpkins are good eating, Narine takes samples of some of his homemade dishes, like pumpkin fried with garlic and onions, curried half-ripe pumpkins or even pumpkin soup.

These recipes offer two different ways to prepare fresh pumpkin — steamed in the microwave or baked. Your choice can depend on convenience, or whether you want the roasted flavor that comes from baking. If you don't want to tackle a fresh pumpkin, you can substitute canned purée in either the soup or quiche. A 29-ounce can of pumpkin purée is about 3 1/2 cups, the equivalent of the cooked flesh in a 2- to 3-pound pie pumpkin.

Purée of Pumpkin Soup

1 small pie pumpkin, 2 to 3 pounds

6 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 large onion, diced

2 small shallots, finely diced

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tsp. dried thyme

1 bay leaf

2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock

1/4 cup cream sherry

1 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a roasting pan with parchment paper. Split pumpkin in half and scrape out seeds and fibers. Place pumpkin halves, flesh side down, in prepared roasting pan. Pour in 1/2 cup water and bake 30 minutes or until skin is deeply browned and flesh is very tender when pierced with a knife. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Scoop out flesh, discarding skin. Set aside. In a large saucepan, cook bacon until deeply browned and crisp, about 10 minutes. Remove browned bacon, drain and set aside. In fat remaining in pot, sauté onion, shallots and garlic over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper, nutmeg and pumpkin flesh. Stir well and sauté 5 minutes longer. Add stock, bring to a simmer and cook 20 minutes.

Remove bay leaf and purée in a blender or with an immersion blender. Bring soup back to a simmer and add sherry and cream. Simmer gently 5 minutes or until heated through. Taste for seasoning. Serve garnished with reserved bacon pieces.

— Adapted from 'The Gift of Southern Cooking' by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock (Alfred A. Knopf, $29.95)

Caribbean Rice and Pumpkin Pilaf

1 small pie pumpkin, 2 to 3 pounds

2 Tbsp. olive oil

2 onions, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 hot pepper, minced

2 cups brown rice

1 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1 (13.5-ounce) can light coconut milk

1 1/2 cups water, divided

Salt and pepper

Split pumpkin in half and scrape out seeds and fibers. Place pumpkin halves flesh side-down in a microwave-proof dish. Cook on high heat for 10 minutes or until flesh is just becoming tender. Remove from microwave and allow to cool. Peel off and discard skin; dice pumpkin into 1-inch pieces. While pumpkin is cooling, in a large saucepan, heat olive oil until hot. Add onions, garlic, bell pepper and hot pepper and sauté 5 minutes or until vegetables just begin to lose their translucency. Add rice and stir until rice grains are coated with oil, about 2 minutes. Add allspice and nutmeg and stir in coconut milk and 1 cup water. Cover pot and cook rice 20 minutes or until tender. Add additional 1/2 cup water if rice needs more liquid as it is cooking. When rice is tender, stir in pumpkin pieces and taste for seasoning.

Pumpkin-Gruyére Quiche

This quiche looks very much like a pumpkin pie when it's baked, and you could add a little sugar, eliminate the cheese and pepper and end up with something very much like a pie. I like chunks of Gruyére here, but you can grate the cheese. If you don't have a 10-inch tart pan, bake the quiche in a deep-dish pie pan. If you have more filling that your pan can accommodate, bake the extra filling separately.

1 10-inch unbaked pie crust

1 (15-oz.) can pumpkin purée

4 eggs

3/4 cup skim milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

2 cups diced Gruyére (about 1/2 pound)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 10-inch removable-bottom tart pan with pie crust. Set tart pan in rimmed cookie sheet and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together pumpkin, eggs, milk, cream, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Distribute Gruyére cubes evenly on the bottom of prepared tart pan. Carefully pour pumpkin filling over the cheese. Bake 20 minutes, then lower heat to 325 and bake 15 minutes more or until filling is set. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly before serving.