Practice Makes Perfect

Pumpkin fest is the best time of year. I look forward to fall and Halloween, even if it means the glory days of summer are drawing to a close. The pumpkin patches are appearing on every empty lot, loaded with ball-like gourds that remind me of basketballs. Kids are thinking about their costumes and if they will make or buy them. It’s always a big decision each year. I love the spontaneous creativity associated with the spirited holiday, not to mention all the yummy treats. I am a sucker for candy, cupcakes, and caramel apples. With the cool weather comes apple cider, spooky decorations, and a plethora of classic and new horror movies.

Of great interest to me is all the pumpkin carving that goes on. We all try to outdo ourselves with new ideas. None of the usual designs will do. You must hone your skills and learn how to make something so eye-catching that it stops people in their tracks. This means a lot of practice. It is not enough to draw a scary face. I like to try it out by painting an old basketball. I get them from the gym. They are about to toss them when I show up to get my dibs. These balls are just about the right size and the orange color helps to make the practice session more real. I use an outdoor basketball since they are sturdy and have the right texture. Sometimes, the results are so good that I keep them for decoration. They make people laugh. You can place them side by side or pile them up in pyramid fashion. Surround them with a bit of loose hay and you have a funny Halloween scene. For atmospheric effects, you can put candles in front. This will add to the eeriness of the grouping. The flickering light is magical. Of course, I prefer the candle inside a hollowed-out pumpkin, but this is simply something different that the kids can even do. Who doesn’t adore a well-conceived jack-o-lantern.

Contests abound at the end of October and adults and children alike join hands to enter their creations. The finalists’ work will be on view for the public until the day after Halloween. Kids like to see them after they finish trick or treating. The rules are simple. You must use a real pumpkin and carve it yourself after hollowing it out. Candles are not required, but most entrants like to include them. Winners get pumpkin pies and pumpkin seed butter in jars. It is all about the ubiquitous fruit (or is it a vegetable?). Whatever it is, it is surely the symbol of fall including Thanksgiving. We can’t have Halloween night antics without one glaring at visitors from the front porch. By the way, I have been known to win a contest or two in my time. I credit my hours of practice with the basketballs. I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.

Pumpkin Recipes

Nothing says fall like the taste of pumpkin and spice.There are a couple basic components to cooking with pumpkin. Once you have some of the techniques down, there are lots of recipes you can try. Here are a few basic ideas on what you can do with two great parts of the pumpkin—the seeds and the meat. I’ve given basic recipes for both, as well as given you a variety of links to check out to elevate this humble ingredient. The recipes below vary in difficulty, but I’m sure you can find something you’ll be comfortable making.

One of the easiest—and healthiest, and delicious—things you can make are roasted pumpkin seeds. This is especially good if you are carving the pumpkin, so you aren’t wasting the insides. There are so many different flavors and takes on this healthy snack that you are sure to find something that interests your taste buds. Check out this great selection on allrecipe. Just separate the seeds from the pulp and pat them dry before you start. I am a bit of a purist, so all I use are the seeds, some olive oil or melted butter, and some salt. I mix the seeds with the oil/butter and salt, and then put them in the oven at 200 degrees F for about an hour or so. Once the seeds are crispy and dry, I pull them out, let them cool, and put them in an airtight container. Yummy!

Next upis a useful ingredient in lots of recipes: pumpkin puree. You can buy canned puree, sure, but it isn’t that hard to make your own. You take a pumpkin, cut it in half (top to bottom) and clean all the seeds and goop. Lay the pieces, flesh side down, in a roasting pan. Put them in an oven preheated to 400 degrees F for about a half hour—you’ll know it is done when the rind is easily pierced with a paring knife. Let it cool. Then, using a spoon or ice cream scoop, scrape the sides of the pumpkin down to the skin to get the meat. Put the meat in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. There you have it—pumpkin puree! You can use it for almost anything (including pie, but I’ll get to that later). You can add it as a flavor to your coffee or to boost the taste of your morning pancakes. But there are other options. I’ve seen recipes for everything from tasty appetizers like pumpkin hummus to desserts like gingersnap cookies to more traditional pumpkin soup recipes. Pumpkin is also a perfect complement for pasta—either as a filling or in a sauce. Get creative and you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Of course, one of the greatest things you can do with a pumpkin is make a pie. You can go completely from scratch, use canned puree and refrigerated pie dough, or use some kind of happy medium. If you’re using a canned puree, there is typically a recipe on the side of the can. But if you’ve made some of your own thanks to the recipe above (make sure it doesn’t call for a spice mix, just plain canned pumpkin puree), you can try simply substituting yours for canned.Or you can try a recipe like thisthat calls specifically for fresh puree.

I hope you try some of these recipes out, or feel free to share your own in the comments!