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Hack em up to rot on the porch? Not these lil cuties

by: Jim Clark, Smaller pumpkins might make a too-small canvas for jack-o’-lanterns, but they’re great for pies, purées and potassium.

Halloween jack-o'-lanterns aren't the only reason pumpkins are just in time when they come into season in October and November. Autumn and winter produce tends to be very hearty and full of the nutrients people need most during the chilly cold and flu season.

Pumpkins contain megadoses of vitamin A (more than twice the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance). Vitamin A converts to beta carotene with potential anti-aging and detoxifying properties that battle both germs and chapped skin.

Pumpkins also contain potassium, which helps prevent stiffness and muscle cramps, more common when the temperature drops. Plenty of vitamin C completes the medicinal package.

Pumpkins, members of the squash family, are often big, bulbous and thick-skinned. These intimidating properties help them survive sleet and frost but have decreased their popularity in the modern, time-conscious kitchen. That's why the cans of puréed pumpkin meat are so much more popular than the whole fruit. (Because pumpkins are seeded and bee-pollinated, they are officially a fruit and not a vegetable.)

Another reason pumpkins may be maligned is because people try to cook their jack-o'-lanterns. It's a resourceful idea, but the style of pumpkins used for holiday ornaments aren't the tastiest.

Round, orange pumpkins (jack-o'-lanterns, mama bears, baby bears and munchkins) are tough and stringy, without enough meat to make them worth the considerable effort of cutting and cleaning. But they're decorative and can be steamed and then carved out to make bowls for pumpkin soups or risotto.

You can also hollow them, pour in some water and fill with cut flowers, for a centerpiece. Mod-looking ghost or white pumpkins are completely inedible, but fun to draw scary faces on, especially for kids too young to handle a carving knife.

The best eating pumpkins are even more funny-looking than the Halloween varieties. Chefs Vitaly Paley of Paley's Place and Marco Shaw of Fife both love the Long Island cheese pumpkin, which is lumpy and beige, vaguely resembling a round of cheese. It's revered for its smooth, almost silky, consistency - great for roasting and using in savory recipes. Seek out cheese pumpkins at farmers markets; Food Front Cooperative Grocery (2375 N.W. Thurman St., 503-222-5658) also carries them.

Another favorite with chefs is the Cinderella. It's substantial in size, often upward of 20 pounds, and attractive, mottled with shades of pink, orange, red and yellow, like a desert sunrise.

Jim Byrne of Springwood Farm loves growing organic Cinderellas because their delicate meat is sweet for pies, soups, breads and puddings.

An unblemished pumpkin - rot from cuts or bruises is the bane of the pumpkin farmer - can last for months after harvest. Byrne suggests storing them in a cool, dry space atop some newspaper.

Preparing pumpkin is something of a time commitment, but the multidimensional taste of fresh pumpkin is well worth it. One large pumpkin yields enough fruit for several dinners (or desserts), and the meat can be prepared ahead and frozen. Some basic preparation methods can be used as the base for most recipes.

Steaming

Great for mini and munchkin pumpkins - put the whole fruit (usually you can fit two at a time) in a steamer, cover and boil for about 20 minutes, or until you can easily stick them with a fork. Once they've cooled a little, cut off the lids and scrape out the seeds and fibers.

You'll be left with a stingy amount of bitter meat, but an adorable bowl for serving risottos or puréed dishes.

Microwaving

Cut your pumpkin in half and clean out the middle. Then cut into quarters or eighths. Place the hunks, three to six at a time, in a microwave bowl and cover with water. Cover the bowl and microwave on high for approximately 10 minutes. As the batches come out, slide off the skin and mash.

A three-pound pumpkin should yield enough meat for a pudding, pie or cake. Or, create a side dish by whipping a cup of the purée with butter and spices as you would potatoes or yams.

Roasting

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Clean and cut your pumpkin(s) into spears.

Mix the marinade of your choice. A good formula to follow is the classic 'fire and ice.' Start with something sweet - maple syrup, honey, balsamic vinegar, walnut oil, bourbon or brown sugar.

Add some punch with powdered chipotle, fresh ginger, curry, garam masala or cayenne. Marry these with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a classic pumpkin spice, maybe nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon or even cumin.

Generously coat the spears and the bottom of the baking dish with the marinade and cook until tender, anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of your spears.

Baking

Cut a pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds, and place the two pieces flesh-side down in a deep baking dish with a quarter inch of water in the bottom. Bake at 400 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes. Halfway through the process brush the halves generously with melted butter or olive oil.

This is a good starting point for a risotto, pasta dish or other entree.

Just skin the pumpkin and cut the flesh into chunks.