The Multiple Lives of a Jack o’Lantern

Lit jack o'lanternBecause yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny, Robert carved the jack o’lanterns on the deck while I cut back the caneberries. “Do you want to use any of this flesh?” he yelled. He likes to scrape the walls of the pumpkins so thin that the candlelight glows through them.

“Taste it!”

“Raw pumpkin?”

Taste it!”

It was sweet, delicious. I’d suspected would be, when I bought it at the produce market up the highway. This pumpkin was a deeper orange than the others, and heavier for its size. The cashier told me it weighed more than the much larger pumpkin I’d brought from the bin a minute earlier. This one might be tastier, too, I told her.

“You eat Halloween pumpkins?”

Usually, I explained, I put them into the compost or bury them in a raised bed. But if they are sweet and dense and not stringy, certainly I eat them. I didn’t mention the seeds, which we would roast and eat regardless, or the high price I’d be paying for compost-to-be if we didn’t eat any part of the pumpkins.

The trick-or-treating started out slow. Families in costume walked slowly by the house, gazing at the lit jack o’lanterns but not coming up the walk. During a pandemic, it’s hard to know if you’re being too presumptuous in knocking on a stranger’s door. So I made a sign—“Trick-or-Treaters Welcome”—and stuck it on a brick porch post. And the kids started coming. Each time they did, I pulled on my plague mask, a black cotton bird’s beak stuffed with tissue paper (herbs would make me sneeze), to which I’d affixed goggles cut from black felt. While Robert pulled open the door, I extended the broomstick to which he had hung a basket, now filled with candy.

Between trick-or-treating groups, we munched roasted pumpkin seeds and I checked the big pot full of pumpkin flesh on the stove. I let the cooking finish with the lid off, so excess water would steam away.

Strained pumpkinThis morning I pressed the cooked pumpkin through the food mill, but that turned out to be an unnecessary step: The flesh was string-free. But now it was a fine purée, ready for a pie—except that it was still pretty watery. I could freeze it as it was and use it for soup, but I had pie on my mind. So I dumped the purée into a fine strainer, and waited a few minutes before packing the purée into freezer containers. I was about to pour the pumpkin water into the compost, but then I tasted it. It wasn’t just water. It was orange and sweet and tasty. It went into the fridge to await its future in a soup or stew.

Robert brought in the little jack o’lantern and took over at the butcher block. He is cutting away the peel, slicing the flesh into chunks, and filling the big pot again. We will have plenty of pumpkin for pie—not butternut or kabocha but genuine jack o’lantern pumpkin, pumpkin that did its duty on an old-fashioned Halloween night.

 

Last of Summer’s Bounty: Winter Squashes

sam in pumpkinsWhen sunlight streams through the red and yellow grape leaves as if they’re made of greased paper, when the walnut spreads a gold carpet of leaves across the driveway and pelts the roof with its black-husked nuts, when the new grass shimmers as green as in April and everything looks brighter in the clean air, it’s time to bring in the pumpkins and other winter squashes. They should be hard-shelled and full-colored now, dark green as the cedars, yellow and orange and red as the leaves dropping all around. The thick stems of the maximas should have turned woody, ready to separate from the dying vines. You need strong clippers for the bigger pepos; cut the stems to just an inch or two. Be careful not to break off a stem, or rot will set in early at the wound site.

A light frost or two will have done the squashes no harm. If you’ve let them sit out through weeks of rain, well, you probably should have got to them sooner. Scrub off the mud, and let the squashes dry. Set them in the sun or another warm place for at least a few hours; I put mine on a sunny deck on the south side of the house. In a wet autumn, a spray or wipe of bleach water may ward off fungus.

“Experts” will tell you to store your squashes at fifty degrees. If you’re thinking of a damp shed or basement, though, think again. Dampness makes squashes rot before their time. A better choice is a cool room in a heated house. My squashes keep well in laundry baskets in the dining room until March, at least. This past August, in fact, I fed the ducks the last of last year’s harvest—a few spaghetti squashes and Jack-Be-Littles—although they showed no signs of decay. But I wanted to save my appetite for the new crop.

Maybe you have some really big squashes—say, blue-gray Sweet Meats (Oregon heirlooms) or a Cinderella-style Rouge Vif d’Etampes.  In Traditional Portuguese Cooking Maria de Lourdes advises, “Break the squash by hurling it to the ground.” But Maria is telling you how to make pumpkin jam; sometimes you need a cleaner cut. For that, you might strike with a cleaver once or twice before dropping the squash hard on a counter. Or you might gash the squash with a long knife—my husband bought me a 14-inch chef’s knife for this purpose—and then hit the back of the blade with a mallet.

Maybe instead you’d like to cut off the top of your squash jack-o-lantern style. Then you can scoop out the seeds and bake the squash whole, so you can serve it with soup or stuffing inside. I do this with miniature pumpkins, which are delicious with just a little pat of butter or a custard filling.

Whatever sort of squash you’re cooking, don’t throw out the seeds. Tossed with a little salt and oil and roasted, squash seeds make an excellent snack. Another Oregon
heirloom variety, Golden Delicious, is today grown commercially just for its seeds. The flesh, though sweet and smooth (it was developed for baby food), is spit out by the harvest machine and tilled into the soil.

My favorite way to cook winter squash is to bake halves cut-side down. A good dry, sweet squash will leak into the pan not water but a little thick, tasty syrup—the cook’s kitchen treat. Cut slices of the baked squash for dinner, or spoon out the flesh and mash it. Taste it before seasoning it; you may finds it needs no butter and maybe not even salt.

What do you do with the leftover flesh from a big squash? I puree it all. If the squash is a bit stringy, I use a food mill, but otherwise I use the KitchenAid mixer. The puree goes into plastic containers in the freezer, where it’s ready to thaw for pie or bread or soup or ice cream or a dish of plain old pureed squash. I am embarrassed to write this—no respectable householder keeps any frozen food for more than twelve months—but pureed squash keeps well in the freezer for several years.

With your squashes serving as home décor and an occasional meal, you can put up your feet and wait for the seed catalogs to arrive. If you’re like me, you’ll pick out an old favorite squash or two for next year, and then you’ll choose a new one that promises to be sweeter, creamier, or prettier than any you’ve tried before.

Harvesting Love in a Mist

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Friends of the Library are coming tomorrow for a potluck. Tidy gardeners all, they are sure to frown on that patch of dried-out nigella stalks by the blueberries. This gives me extra incentive to harvest the seeds today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, is an annual beloved by less-tidy flower gardeners for its lovely little blue flowers surrounded by delicate, lacy foliage. The flowers develop into pods rather like those of opium poppies. When the pale green pods have turned golden and their little black seeds rattle inside, many gardeners cut the stalks and save them for winter arrangements.

This is what I had in mind, too, the first year I grew love-in-a-mist. But my small daughter, an incorrigible browser then and now, told me they had a more practical use. “Taste the seeds, Mama! They’re good!”

I chided her, as I always did, for eating whatever plants lay in her path. But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I asked what the seeds tasted like. Raised on natural foods, she couldn’t place the flavor. But I could, as soon as I gingerly bit into one of the black, teardrop-shaped seeds: Grape Kool-Aid!

N. damascena is closely related to N. sativa, which in India, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East is beloved at least as much for its culinary and medicinal purposes as for its ornamental value. The seeds are used in and on breads, like sesame seeds and poppy seeds. In India, where nigella seeds are called kalonji or onion seeds (for their appearance, not their flavor), they are briefly fried or toasted and added to pickles, chutneys, and sauces. The seeds are believed to ameliorate digestive, respiratory, rheumatic, and skin problems, and some of these medicinal benefits have been scientifically confirmed.

I harvest nigella by pulling the stalks from the ground and turning them upside-down into a paper grocery bag. Because I’ve waited a bit too long to harvest, as many as half the seeds scatter to the ground in the process. That’s fine with me; they will grow into next year’s crop.

However hard I shake them, the pods will hang on to some of their seeds, so on a windy day I’ll scatter the stalks where I want more love-in-a-mist to grow. Then I’ll winnow the seeds left in the bottom of the paper bags. I’ll store the clean seeds in a jar, and I’ll take some out now and then to sprinkle on top of bread just before baking it.

If I serve the bread to company, I’ll wait for my guests to ask what the strange black seeds are. Before I tell them, I’ll ask what the seeds taste like. Grape Kool-Aid, anyone?

UPDATES

August 20, 2009: Joanne from Lake Oswego tells me that N. sativa is available from Penzey’s as charnushka. Russians and Poles sprinkle charnushka (chernushka, czarnuszka) on top of rye bread before baking it.

November 29, 2009: I recently bought some seeds of N. sativa from the San Francisco Herb Company. They look like N. damascena, but their flavor is not at all foxy. I can best describe it as bitter–though less bitter than, say, celery seed–and complex, dark, almost smoky. I hope I like them better on bread.