Friday 19 January 2018

Carving out a perennial role for pumpkins

Pumpkins are multi-purpose fruits and they can be used for much more than carving scary faces, writes Michael Kelly

I ALWAYS find it strange that we have such a short-lived, annual obsession with pumpkins. Every year it seems to be the same: in the weeks running up to Halloween, supermarkets bring in a few crates of giant pumpkins and arrange them in vibrant, eye-catching displays. Families across the land bring them home, scoop out the flesh inside, carve a scary face into the side and then stick a night light inside.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love carving scary faces into pumpkins. Halloween just wouldn't be Halloween without a ghoulish pumpkin face sitting in the window, glowering out at any visitors to the house. I particularly love it when the pumpkin starts to rot, and the face becomes all contorted like it's in its death agony.

So, I am all for carving pumpkins. But I reckon we're doing this fine vegetable a disservice. Try and buy a pumpkin in November or beyond in the supermarket in which you bought your Halloween pumpkin, and you won't find them so easy to source. Of course you can get an occasional squash (mainly butternut), but pumpkins all but disappear from the shelves once Halloween is over.

For some reason we don't have much interest in eating pumpkins in Ireland, which is curious because they are in fact very good to eat and they are also really, really cheap. In reality, you can use pumpkin in any recipe that needs a squash -- they are pretty much interchangeable to my mind, though that is perhaps evidence of a lack of sophistication in my palate.

Large, roasted chunks of pumpkin make a superb addition to the Sunday roast and of course you can try more traditional uses like pumpkin soup or even go "all American" and try a pumpkin pie. Pumpkin also does very well in curries, stews and risotto, adding both bulk and colour. You can even try using pumpkin as the main ingredient in bread, soufflés, cookies and cakes. One of Mrs Kelly's specialty dishes is a mean, spicey pitta bread sandwich in which pumpkin chunks and chickpeas are the main ingredients.

Incidentally, while the supermarket giants are great for carving, smaller pumpkins are worth seeking out (perhaps try the veg stall at your farmers' market) because they tend to be sweeter and more flavoursome.

Not only are they delicious to eat, they are also a nutrition powerhouse, being very low in calories, fat and sodium. Pumpkins are also packed with vitamin C, iron and potassium, and extra-rich in cancer and heart disease-busting beta carotene.

And once you have scooped out all that lovely flesh, don't toss out the pumpkin seeds because they are a great source of zinc, iron and omega-3. (Simply wash the pumpkin seeds and spread them out on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt. Bake for 20 minutes, giving them a stir every five minutes).

Pumpkins are quite easy (and fun) to grow, though they do require a good deal of space (about 2m per plant). Not surprisingly, given the size of the fruits, they are a hungry plant and need plenty of nutrients in the soil (manure or compost). In fact a lady in the GIY group in Waterford told me once that she grows her pumpkins in her compost heap. You might not want to go that far, but when you are planting the seedlings out around June, dig a big hole and put plenty of well-rotted farmyard manure or compost into it before planting.

For the home-grower, there is another compelling reason for growing them. They store exceptionally well. When we harvest our pumpkins, we leave them to "cure" in the potting shed for two weeks so that the skins toughen up. Once you've done that they will last for 4-6 months in the right conditions -- store somewhere well ventilated in temperatures between 10 and 15°C.

There is nothing better than hacking open a pumpkin in the early months of the year when there is very little growing in the veg patch -- the thrill of cutting away the skin and finding the vibrant orange flesh beneath is a wonderful, almost shocking, surprise in the bleak mid-winter. In our house, I typically advocate leaving the pumpkins alone until January or so rather than eating them now, since there is so much else available fresh from the veg patch -- in reality, I don't always win that argument.

As consumers we would be forgiven for thinking that there is only one type of pumpkin in existence (a very, very large, orange one), when in fact there are literally hundreds of varieties in all shapes, sizes and colours. So, if you want real diversity in the food that you eat, as is often the case, you really have to grow it yourself.

Let your imagination run riot and try lots of different varieties -- the giants are fun to try, but for your main crop for storage, aim for smaller ones. This year we grew a wonderfully strange blue-skinned pumpkin (pictured), which still has the vibrant orange flesh when cut open.

I can also heartily recommend the variety Baby Bear -- each plant produces up to five little pumpkins weighing in at 1.5kg each. Think about the thriftiness of that -- a packet of Baby Bear seeds will cost €2 and the 5 seeds inside will produce 25 pumpkins. That's a whopping 37.5kg of food for €2! Sure, where else would you get it?

Check out the Veg of the Week panel (right) for more on growing pumpkins.

• Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm',

and founder of GIY.

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