To remember what pumpkin tastes like, you must ditch pumpkin spice

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017 Austin360 Eats
To properly cook a pumpkin, you’ll need to scrape the seeds and stringy flesh out of the inside. Some cooks like to roast the seeds, too. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Love it or hate it, pumpkin spice has become the dominant flavor of fall.

Amid hundreds of products and recipes using that unmistakable mix of nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and allspice, we have forgotten what pumpkins actually taste like.

A cousin to every other winter squash out there, pumpkins have a similar earthy sweet flavor. Some can be bitter and less enjoyable to eat on their own, which is probably why we started baking them in pies and why we’ve historically seasoned them with dessert spices.

But if you’re in the mood for dishes that focus on the pumpkin and not the spice, we have a collection of recipes to showcase October’s signature squash.

First, a little background on which pumpkins you should use and how to prepare them. All winter squash are edible, including carving pumpkins, but some are so difficult to cut and peel they might be best left as decoration. According to DeeDee Stovel, author of “The Pumpkin Cookbook, 2nd Edition: 139 Recipes Celebrating the Versatility of Pumpkin and Other Winter Squash” (Storey Publishing, $16.95), pie, sugar, cheese and kabocha pumpkins are the best varieties for cooking both savory and sweet dishes because they are easy to find, easy to peel and packed with flavor. This time of year, you can usually find them in traditional grocery stores, but the most interesting varieties are often found at the farmers market.

The sturdy outer skin is what makes pumpkins last so long, but it’s not so pleasant to eat. After cutting a pumpkin in half and scooping out the seeds, I’ve used a regular vegetable peeler to remove the skin, but you can also place the pumpkin cut-side down on a cutting board and then carefully slice away the outer layer using a sharp knife. If you prefer not to peel them at all, you can roast the pumpkin, cut-side down, and then scrape out the flesh after it has cooked.

Pumpkin, like most winter squashes, pairs well with herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano and marjoram, according to Stovel, but to make an even bigger splash on your palate, consider your entire spice cabinet. Ginger, cumin, turmeric, chili powder and curry powders all complement pumpkin’s natural flavor.

Spicy Beef Stew in a Pumpkin Shell

The Greeks call their spicy beef stew stifado, which has been a favorite of my non-Greek family for years. Chunks of pumpkin are at home in this savory mix of tender beef, onions, tomato and spices, which slowly cook undisturbed until serving time. If time is a big factor, use 3 pounds of frozen pearl onions. For a festive touch, this stew can be served in a pumpkin. — DeeDee Stovel

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 pounds stewing beef

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds small white onions

1/2 cup red wine

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 clove garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

1 small cinnamon stick

6 whole cloves

1 tablespoon currants (optional)

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1 pound fresh pumpkin, seeds and fibers removed, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 cups)

1 edible pumpkin, 4 to 5 pounds, for serving (optional)

Heat the butter and oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the meat, salt and pepper to taste, and stir with the butter and oil just to coat, not to brown.

Cut off the root and stem ends of the onions. Make a small X in the root end to keep the onions from falling apart. Remove the skins and spread them over the meat. A quick way to loosen skins is to parboil the onions for 1 minute in a large saucepan of boiling water.

Mix the wine, tomato paste, vinegar, sugar and garlic together and pour over the meat and onions. Scatter the bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves, currants (if using) and cumin over the top. Bring the stew to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 2 hours. Do not stir. Gently press the pumpkin into the stew. Cover and continue cooking for 1 hour longer, or until the meat is very tender.

Meanwhile, if serving stew in a pumpkin, heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top off the pumpkin and scrape out the seeds and stringy insides. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry. Rub the outside with vegetable oil, place on a jelly-roll pan and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until easily pierced with a fork but not collapsing. Set the hot pumpkin on a serving plate.

Spoon the hot stew into the hot pumpkin and scrape a bit of pumpkin with each serving of stew. Serves 6.

— From “The Pumpkin Cookbook, 2nd Edition: 139 Recipes Celebrating the Versatility of Pumpkin and Other Winter Squash” by DeeDee Stovel (Storey Publishing, $16.95)

Roasted Pumpkin and Spinach Tostadas

El Alma executive chef Alma Alcocer graced the pages of People magazine earlier this month with a recipe for her pumpkin and spinach tostadas, a dish that occasionally appears as a special at her Barton Springs Road restaurant.

1 (1 1/2- to 2-lb.) pumpkin

1 tsp. chili powder

3 tablespoons thinly sliced pickled jalapeños

3 tablespoons pickled jalapeño liquid from jar

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Fine sea salt

2 cups thinly sliced red cabbage

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 cup packed fresh baby spinach

6 tostada shells

1/4 cup crumbled queso fresco

1/4 cup roasted salted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)

Fresh tomato salsa (optional)

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Cut stem from top of pumpkin; cut pumpkin in half. Scoop out seeds and discard. Sprinkle flesh with chili powder, and place on a rimmed baking sheet, cut side up. Bake until very tender, about 45 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes.

Whisk together jalapeños, jalapeño liquid, lime juice and a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Add cabbage; toss to coat.

Cut pumpkin halves into quarters, and cut away skin. Cut flesh into 1-inch cubes. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in pumpkin, and cook until heated, about 1 minute. Remove from heat; stir in spinach and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Divide pumpkin mixture evenly among shells; top each with cabbage mixture, queso fresco and pepitas. Serve with salsa, if desired.

— From El Alma executive chef Alma Alcocer

Roasted Pumpkin-Poblano Soup

For the past few years I’ve been making my vegetable soups under one principle: “Do not add chicken stock.” I don’t want, under any circumstance, my broccoli soup to taste like chicken (or my potato, carrot or any vegetable soup to taste like chicken instead of the star vegetables). It is certainly a challenge to follow this principle because our inner chicken stock-flavored souls desperately want to add more “depth of flavor.” I add that depth by roasting, grilling and braising; all these cooking methods bring out the qualities in the vegetables and enhance the sweetness and flavor concentration to the soup.

Pumpkin has a delicate flavor, so it is easy to accidentally cover up if you’re not careful. For this soup, I roasted the pumpkin and then added caramelized sweet onions to bring out the similar flavors in the pumpkin. The finished soup shines with crunchy tortilla strips and charred poblano and sweet corn. If you want to use canned pumpkin puree, make sure it is the plain pumpkin puree, not one with the pumpkin pie spices already added. You’ll need either one large or two small pumpkins to make two cups of puree. You can freeze any extra pumpkin puree for smoothies or other uses, and this soup also freezes well. — Mariana McEnroe

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small sweet yellow onion

Salt

2 cups roasted pumpkin puree

4 cups water

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 tablespoon of butter

To garnish:

2 poblanos, roasted, skinned, deseeded and cut into strips

1-2 ears corn, charred on a comal or cast-iron skillet and then kernels removed from husk

2 corn tortillas thinly cut into strips, baked or fried

1/4 cup cream or Greek yogurt

Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium high heat. Cook the onions with a pinch of salt until they are soft and translucent. Lower the heat and let them become brown and caramelized, which will take at least another 20 minutes of cooking.

Add pumpkin puree, water, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper and nutmeg. Let it simmer until bubbly hot. Adjust the liquids for desired consistency. Add the tablespoon of butter and stir until melted and incorporated.

Serve warm in a soup bowl and garnish with the poblanos, charred corn and thinly fried tortilla strips. You can add a dollop of Greek yogurt or swirl of cream. Serves 2 to 4.

— From Mariana McEnroe, Yes More Please (yes-moreplease.com)

Roasted Lemon-Herb Chicken with Root Vegetables

This chicken is a showstopper. I have made roasted chicken for holidays, for slow, lazy Sundays with friends, and even dinner parties. It is a second-to-none centerpiece on a lovely set table that tastes even better than it looks. A major bonus to this recipe is that you end up with a chicken carcass that you can use to make bone broth. Save the carcass, pick off any remaining meat and start the bone broth in your slow cooker after dinner. Roast chicken is the meal that keeps on giving. — Jennifer Esposito

1 whole organic chicken, 3 to 5 pounds

4 1/2 cups peeled, cubed root vegetables (any combination of pumpkin, carrots, beets, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and/or Brussels sprouts will work)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 lemon, juiced, rind reserved

2 tablespoons honey

3 cloves garlic, 1 peeled and minced, the other 2 peeled but left whole

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

Himalayan salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 475 degrees. Rinse the chicken with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a wire rack in a roasting pan and set aside.

Place the cubed vegetables in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the olive oil, lemon juice, honey, minced garlic, parsley, rosemary, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Whisk together and pour about 1/4 over the vegetables. Mix until the vegetables are coated.

Pour the remaining mixture over the chicken and rub it in with your hands. Place the lemon rind into the cavity of the chicken, along with the 2 whole garlic cloves. Arrange the root vegetables in the pan around the chicken. Sprinkle everything with a little more salt and pepper. Roast for 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees and roast for an additional 45 minutes, until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees.

Place the chicken on a cutting board or platter, cover with a tea towel or a tent of parchment paper or foil, and let rest for 15 minutes. Serve the vegetables alongside the chicken, carving it at the table.

— “Jennifer’s Way Kitchen: Easy Allergen-Free, Anti-Inflammatory Recipes for a Delicious Life” by Jennifer Esposito (Grand Central Life & Style, $30)

Fancy Rice

I make this every time I have family over, and I add some finely diced seasonal fruit or even leftover vegetables, including roasted squash or pumpkin. Most people enjoy rice, and a beautifully herb-flecked bowl of it with crunchy nuts and spice is hard to resist. The sumac is an unusual addition, but its sour, earthy flavor plays well here. You could substitute any ground spice you happen to love. You could also use this rice — with or without the added fruit and veggies — as a stuffing for a small squash or pumpkin. — Laura Wright

1 cup uncooked wild and brown rice blend, rinsed

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground sumac

1/4 cup unsweetened dried cranberries

1/2 cup roasted, cubed winter squash or pumpkin

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 green onions, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/4 cup almonds, chopped, for garnish

Place the wild and brown rice blend in a medium saucepan. Cover the rice with cold water by one inch. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, and cover. Cook the rice for 40 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let the rice sit for 5 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork, and gently transfer it to a medium bowl.

Add the olive oil, apple cider vinegar, coriander, sumac, dried cranberries, roasted squash or pumpkin, parsley, green onions, salt and pepper to the rice. Toss gently to combine. Garnish the rice with the chopped almonds. Serve warm. Serves 4.

— From “The First Mess Cookbook: Vibrant Plant-Based Recipes to Eat Well Through the Seasons” by Laura Wright (Avery, $30)

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