Pumpkins lure us with both mystery and a childlike anticipation of fun. Wreathed in folklore or encrusted in flaky pastry, this vegetable defines the end-of-year holidays, whether you're a savvy decorator looking for the latest fashion or a kid at heart looking for the perfect jack-o'-lantern.
So let's tramp out to where style meets squash: the pumpkin patch. Because a pumpkin display can be — should be — anything but monochromatic.
You can go for eerie stripes, spooky creams, screaming reds, wild warts, fissures, grooves and wrinkles — and sizes from giant to smaller than a newborn kitten. In pumpkins, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and ways to celebrate the squash include everything from eating it to launching it via catapult. You can carve it into ghostly sculptures or use it as the centerpiece of graceful fall décor.
Most people still love the traditional orange round for jack-o-lantern carving. For this purpose, seek out the heirlooms Howden or Connecticut Field, which set the standard in tall, full-figured squash. Or go for Wolf, with its stout peduncle (that's pumpkin-geek-speak for stem).
But if you're searching for a Samhain twist, there's a world of pumpkin novelty as close as your nearest farmer's market or pumpkin patch, such as Anderson Farms in Erie, where most of these beauties were found.
The look: The deeply ribbed, smooth, blue-gray skin and flat profile of this New Zealand heirloom will have your visitors stopping to take a closer look. Other than the color, it has the shape of a traditional orange pumpkin.
Why you want it: Exceptional in fall decorations, it pairs well with the strong reds of Rouge vif d'Etampes.
Rouge vif d'Etampes
Why you want it: This French heirloom was the most popular market pumpkin in 1880s France and the inspiration for Cinderella's coach. With its deep ribs and flattened profile, it's eye-catching on fall porches.
The look: Carved up and lit from within, this pumpkin's snowy-white skin over its orange flesh makes a perfectly ghostly October centerpiece.
Why you want it: Grab an extra one for cooking, because the flavor is outstanding in soups and baking.
The look: A gnarly take on the traditional Jack, this pumpkin is covered in warts.
Why you want it: Because owning one of these strange, beautiful, freakishly lumped pumpkins makes your carving truly scary. (If you get lazy, this beastie can go au naturel).
Musquee de Provence
The look: Deeply ribbed, dusky dark green splashed with orange, turning to brownish orange when mature.
Why you want it: Irregular shape screams “heirloom chic”; flesh of mature pumpkin makes chefs wallow in superlatives; French accent practice.
The look: Peachy pink, deeply ribbed and rather squat, with straight sides
Why you want it: A decor smash when paired with other pale varieties.
Little people love pumpkins too, especially those that are the right size for small hands. Try pure white Baby Boo or classic orange Jack-Be-Little, the slightly flattened ribbed charmers ideally sized for a toddler's grip. For true, round pumpkin form, Little October is the diminutive version of the standard squash. Batwing will thrill younger goblins with its perfect, miniature orange rounds and funky bat-black bottoms; and Lil' Pumpkemon sports orange stripes over white skin.
Anyone carving up a spooky surprise knows that pumpkins are filled with seeds. Roasted, they're a popular snack in many homes, and you'll find recipes calling for pumpkin seeds or seed oil in salads and international cuisine. But the hulls are tough and dry.
If you love the seeds but not the hulls, look in the patch for Kakai or Lady Godiva, varieties that aren't shy about sporting naked seeds. Well, OK, they're not truly naked, but the seeds are very thinly coated — so much so that their green skin shows through the hull. Just rinse the seeds, soak in brine, and roast. The pumpkins themselves are fashionable in green and orange stripes, gorgeous to look at before you expose the seeds.
Pumpkins grace our tables as often as our décor, and creative chefs crave pie pumpkins for soups, breads, muffins, cupcakes, chutneys, cheesecakes — recipes that give meaning to the term comfort food. Finding a pumpkin with the perfect balance of creamy, sweet, slightly dry flesh makes the difference between blah and brilliant dishes.
New England Pie, Sugar Pie, and Amish Pie are at the top of the list for outstanding flavor and texture. But the king of them all is Winter Luxury, with its sexy beige peek-a-boo netting. It's the pumpkin that consistently wins taste-offs nationwide. The challenge of finding Winter Luxury rests in its shyness to produce. The vines aren't always willing to bear fruit, so if you see one for sale, grab it.
Pie, baby, pie
Roasting up a pumpkin is as simple as washing it in cool, running water, piercing it liberally with a paring knife, and popping it into a 350-degree oven for an hour or until it's tender all the way through.
Once roasted, carefully cut it open and let cool slightly. Remove seeds and pulp, then scoop out the pumpkin for your favorite recipe. Some chefs prefer to cut the pumpkin into chunks before roasting so that the flesh will sear a little for a slightly caramelized sweetness.
Pick the perkiest pumpkin
If you plan on getting out early to pick your pumpkin, choose one that lasts with these tips:
Strong stems keep the pumpkin fresh, so look for those that are fully attached to the skin. But don't pick them up by the stem.
Choose firm, not mushy, pumpkins. Avoid those with cuts in the skin; they'll rot quickly.
Keep your pumpkin cool, not freezing or overly hot. Store away from direct sunlight, and bring it in if frost is predicted.
Keep Jack-O-Lanterns jaunty
Once your pumpkin is picked and safely home, keep it fresh and ready for the big night with these tips:
Wait to carve your pumpkin until one or two days before Halloween.
Scrape out the walls to a thickness of one inch for easiest carving.
Immediately after carving, smear petroleum jelly over the interior and cut surfaces to lock moisture in.
Carved pumpkins will wilt in three days; perk yours up by soaking it in water. Mix one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water to prevent mold from growing on your pumpkin.