By Mary Godnick, Communication Coordinator for CCE Essex Adirondack Harvest Program. This article originally appeared in the September issues of Northern HGL Magazine.
Pumpkins are an undeniable sign of the shifting seasons in the Adirondack region. This year, support farms in your community by using locally grown pumpkins and winter squash in your fall cooking, baking and decorating!
Surprisingly, pumpkins, winter squash and gourds are all fruit of the same genus, Cucurbita. Botanically speaking, there isn’t much difference between them. However, there is a significant difference in pumpkins, squash and gourds that have been bred for ornamental or edible purposes. A jack-o-lantern-style pumpkin would be tasteless and disappointing to eat. But a pie pumpkin would be sweet and delicious, much more like butternut squash. Edible pumpkins and squash can be unique decorations that can later be eaten. Look for delicious and beautiful varieties like Blue Hubbard, Autumn Frost, and Long Island Cheese to make your autumn decor do double duty.
Pumpkins & Winter Squash in the Adirondacks Through History
The Haudenosaunee (known as Iroquois) people have been growing pumpkins and winter squash in Upstate and Central New York for thousands of years. Valued for their long storage and nutrition they provide during the cold North Country winters. It has traditionally been grown as part of Three Sisters Gardens, which is a growing method developed and used by the Haudenosaunee people where corn, beans, and squash are grown together to provide each other with structural support, nutrients, weed suppression, and water conservation. Winter squash was used alongside beans and corn, by the Haudenosaunee in many ways. One example is squash in a cooked corn stew flavored with wild edible plants and game like venison or beaver.
Winter squash continued to be a valuable sustenance crop for European colonists and early homesteaders in the Northeast. It was commonly mashed and eaten on its own, or incorporated into other dishes. You can see heirloom varieties of winter squash growing in the King’s Garden at the Historic Fort Ticonderoga. Some recognizable varieties of winter squash grown in the region throughout history are the Boston Marrow, Hubbard, and Turban squash.
Today most of the world’s pumpkins are grown in China, India and Ukraine. In the US, most pumpkins are grown in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Nestlé’s pureed pumpkin brand “Libby’s” is primarily grown and processed in Illinois, and then shipped across the country. While pumpkins and winter squash are eaten across the globe, canned pumpkin really is just an American and Canadian thing. You can’t easily find canned pumpkin abroad. According to a 2018 study, the top reported consumers of pumpkin consumption per capita are Ukraine, Iran and Russia, where pumpkin is used whole in dishes like Ghalieh Kadoo an Iranian pumpkin stew with carrot, parsley and cilantro and Varenyky with Pumpkin, a variety of a Ukrainian dumpling filled with roasted pumpkin mash and spices.
Why Local Pumpkins?
The average commercial jack-o-lantern pumpkin weighs between 10-20 lbs. It is an incredibly resource-intensive process to ship literal tons of pumpkins and winter squash from the midwest and California to the Northeast- sometimes just for an inexpensive fall decoration that gets tossed in the compost after a few weeks. While the price per pound for a local organic pumpkin or squash might be higher than the box store carving pumpkins, if you buy one of the many beautiful varieties of pumpkins that are both edible and decorative, you can actually save money by using the pumpkin as a decoration, then making a meal out of it.
Growing Your Own Pumpkin Patch
Pumpkins and winter squash are easy to grow if you have the right conditions for them. They need a lot of space (10 feet or more), well-drained fertile soil, full sunlight and a long growing season. They can be easily planted by seed when the soil is at least 65 degrees, or in the Adirondacks, after Memorial Day. Use mulch around seedlings to retain moisture and suppress weeds. The primary pests for pumpkins and winter squash are squash bugs, squash vine borers, and cucumber beetles. Raccoons, woodchucks, and voles can also be a problem as fruit ripens they may nibble on the sweet fruit. Pick pumpkin and winter squash varieties of pumpkins and winter squash that are bred for shorter growing seasons in colder climates. You may want to experiment growing them as part of a Three Sisters Garden- interplanted with corn and pole beans.
Your pumpkins or winter squash will likely be ready to be harvested in September. You can tell they are ready when the skin is thick enough that your fingernail doesn’t easily pierce it. If you eat a winter squash or pumpkin freshly picked off the vine, you may find that it’s a little flavorless. The flavor of winter squash and pumpkins significantly improves after a process called “curing” where they are stored in a hot, sunny spot so that the skins dry out for long term storage. During the curing process, the sugars become more concentrated, and the flesh improves in flavor.
How to Store and Cook With Whole Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Pumpkins that are cured and stored properly can stay fresh in storage for up to a year. All varieties of winter squash and pumpkins make beautiful fall decorations. Look for the “jack-o-lantern” type for carving and painting. When buying local pumpkins or winter squash for eating, look for varieties that are specifically meant to be eaten- like little “pie” pumpkins. The best way to know if what you’re getting is a delicious edible variety is to ask your farmer!
How to Make Homemade Pumpkin Purée
There are several ways to cook a whole pumpkin, it really comes down to the tools you have easily accessible in your kitchen and personal preference. Note: Most of what is sold as canned pumpkin puree is actually primarily butternut squash. So don’t be afraid to mix different types of winter squash that you have on hand into your “pumpkin” mixture.
- -The simplest method would be to cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds. Place it face down in a baking dish or rimmed cookie sheet. Roast them at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes- or until the flesh is soft. Let them cool and scoop the pumpkin out of the skin.
- -Another similar method is to poke a few holes in the pumpkin and place the entire intact pumpkin on a baking dish or rimmed cookie sheet. Cook in the oven at 350 degrees for about an hour or until the flesh is soft to the touch. Baking time will vary significantly depending on the size of the fruit. Let cool and slice in half, scoop out seeds, and scoop the flesh out of the skin.
- -If you’re making a dish that requires whole pieces of pumpkin, peel and de-seed it like you would any other winter squash, and cube the flesh.
If you are looking for a canned pumpkin puree replacement- simply mash your cooked pumpkin flesh with a fork, potato masher, or food processor to create your desired consistency.
Butternut Squash/Pumpkin Mac and Cheese
Recipe by Simply Scratch, shared by My Saratoga Kitchen Table
*Ingredients available from local farms and food producers
- 16 ounces dry pasta, rigatoni, or your favorite pasta
● 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter*
● 1 large shallot*, finely minced
● 2 cloves of garlic*, minced
● 10 fresh sage leaves*, minced
● 3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
● 1 cup chicken broth* (sub vegetable broth to make vegetarian)
● 1½ cups half and half
● pinch of kosher salt, plus more or less to taste
● freshly ground black pepper to taste
● ⅛ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
● 1½ cups homemade roasted butternut squash or pumpkin* puree (see instructions above)
● 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
● 1¼ cups shredded cheese* extra sharp or similar
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
2. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add in the shallot and garlic. Sauté until soft, about 2 – 3 minutes. Then add the fresh sage and stir, cooking for 1 minute.
3. Sprinkle in the flour and whisk, cooking the flour for 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Next whisk in the chicken broth and half & half. Season with a small pinch of salt, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and nutmeg. Heat over medium-low, whisking occasionally until the sauce has thickened about 4 to 5 minutes.
5. Reduce the heat to low and add the butternut squash puree, parmesan, and ¼ cup of the cheddar cheese. Whisk until smooth.
6. After the pasta is cooked, drain the pasta and transfer it to the cheese sauce. Toss to combine.
7. Move the oven rack to the highest position in the oven and preheat the broiler to high.
8. Pour the pasta into the prepared casserole dish and sprinkle with the remaining cup of cheese. Slide the pan under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes or until the cheese is melted and is light golden brown in spots.
Where to Buy Local Pumpkins & Winter Squash
Find local winter squash and pumpkins by browsing the map of farms and retail locations at adirondackharvest.com/browse
-Mary Godnick is the Communication Coordinator for the Adirondack Harvest program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Essex County.