AS A NOVICE KID CHEF, I once used the flesh from a Halloween pumpkin to make a pie. Blech! It’s a culinary lesson that many cooks discover only later in life.
Aficionados know that jack-o’-lantern pumpkins are good for carving and illuminating, but their stringy flesh isn’t fit for a creamy pie filling or any other recipe calling for pumpkin meat. Instead, look for varieties called pie or sugar pumpkins. The pumpkins in this category—and there are many types, with different names—are typically smaller, with meatier flesh and less moisture.
Native to the Americas (we exported them to France in colonial times), culinary pumpkins have populated autumn menus and graced holiday tables throughout North America going back to the late 1700s. (After the Civil War, Southerners associated the popular pie with the culture of “Northern aggressors” and swapped sweet potatoes for the offending squash.)
Since pumpkins belong to the squash family, they play a role in Native dishes as an element of the celebrated Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. Each can thrive in the same patch of soil, creating a harmony that became the backbone of Indigenous cuisine. Long before European settlers arrived, Native people had learned to enjoy every part of the pumpkin, from its blossom (added to stews) to its seeds (everyone loves a good snack).
Pumpkin delivered a nutritional punch then and now: It’s high in vitamin A, beta-carotene, fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, and low in fat and carbohydrates.
Among the New Mexico varieties ripe for cooking, I recommend Small Sugar, Baby Pam, Baby Bear, Winter Luxury, Jack Be Little, Wee-B-Little, Summer Ball, and Orange Smoothie. While we certainly love our pie here—we even have a town named for the dish—the autumn harvest can be both sweet and savory.
But how to handle, prep, and cook them? Many recipes call for peeling, chopping, and boiling to make a puree. I prefer to roast them in halves, brushing the skin lightly with olive oil to keep it moist. I leave the seeds in—they’re easier to remove after cooking. Place the halves facedown on a cookie sheet and roast at 375° for 30 to 40 minutes or until the flesh gives way easily when punctured with a fork. Roasting promotes caramelization and evaporates some of the moisture, thus concentrating the flavor.
Allow them to cool. Then simply remove the seeds and peel away the flesh. If you are adding chunks to a stew or curry, underbake the halves slightly so the pieces don’t lose their texture while simmering in a sauce. For pureeing, well-baked, tender flesh will achieve a smooth texture in a food processor, food mill, or ricer. If you must use canned pumpkin, avoid the seasoned pie-filling version. Even I’ve been known to buy plain pumpkin puree and add my own flavorings.
The puree can be added to baked goods as a substitute for fats and eggs, and its full flavor stands up to intense spices and seasonings. Some other ideas? Baked baby pumpkins make fancy bowls for a soup. You can also try them for pickling, in curries (both Thai and Indian), added to muffins and loaf breads, and in risottos, au gratins, and egg rolls. Who doesn’t love a pumpkin mousse roulade or pumpkin cheesecake?
The seeds can easily be cleaned of the pulp, washed, dried, seasoned, and toasted. A light toss in olive oil and a sprinkling of your favorite dry rub will turn them into hard-to-stop-eating snacks.
Add adventure to family fun by visiting a pumpkin patch. Besides letting you pick your own pumpkin, most locations have hayrides, corn mazes, petting zoos, pond fishing, and more.
Toni Balzano says the Balzano Family Vineyard and Pumpkin Patch, near Carlsbad, took form years ago after she and her then-young daughter headed to Moriarty for the theme park of them all, McCall’s Pumpkin Patch. “I just fell in love with the idea of owning a pumpkin patch,” she says. “I was fortunate that my family owns 150 acres of land between Artesia and Carlsbad, and they were willing to let me try to do it. We have steadily grown every year since, just by adding new things that we know families will enjoy—games, gel blasters, a farm obstacle course, a big slide, and new food options, too.”
Jimmy Wagner, namesake of Big Jim Farms, in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, says the pick-it-yourself farm has four months of fun. “During July we start with harvesting sunflowers, then the green chile is ready in August, and pumpkins start at the end of September, through Halloween,” he says. “We have photo areas throughout the farm, so visitors can get some cute photos to remember the good times. And we have an area for farm animals, play areas, and live music. We only charge for what someone picks.”
On some weekends, Big Jim Farms even sets up pumpkin-carving stations because, yeah, you still need a jack-o’-lantern—even if you can’t cook with it.
Christine Hickman, who wrote the definitive gnocchi cookbook, Gnocchi, Solo Gnocchi, and regularly teaches Italian-themed cooking classes in Santa Fe, offers this delicious recipe celebrating the humble pumpkin. She often uses the widely available kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, because of its sweet, dry, and dense flesh, but agrees any variety of local pie pumpkin will work.
An autumn drive to Taos will more than reward you with the vibrant foliage of cottonwoods along the Río Grande and aspens in the high country. Add to the delights a meal at Medley, where chef and owner Wilks Medley lets local purveyors inspire menus that feature a “modern spin on nostalgic classics.” Uninterrupted mountain views from the restaurant patio complete the dream. He shares this pancake dish for a decadent breakfast or brunch filled with fall flavors.
This is my recipe for a rich and aromatic special-occasion chicken dish. I like to serve it with white rice. The sauce also complements shrimp, fish, and pork.
PICK ME! PICK ME!
Here are a few pumpkin-picking patches to try this fall.
Artesia. Heirloom Acres includes a corn maze and s’mores around a campfire. 402-944-2585.
Rio Rancho. In the parking lot of the Rio Rancho Events Center, Galloping Goat Pumpkin Patch sets up a corn pit, tricycle track, playhouses, roping arena, pumpkin bowling, and more.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque. Big Jim Farms is an agricultural oasis in the city, with U-pick fields, play areas, and educational programs. 505-459-0719.
Las Cruces. Mesilla Valley Maze combines hayrides, gem mining, face painting, giant slides, and—oh yeah—pumpkins. 575-526-1919.
Carlsbad. Balzano Family Vineyard and Pumpkin Patch adds wine tastings on a beautiful patio to the family fun. 575-502-3317.
Moriarty. McCall’s Pumpkin Patch offers more than 60 attractions, including pedal karts, a low-ropes course, and the spoooky Haunted Farm. 505-595-7500.