The pumpkin is the unofficial emblem of autumn. Its bright orange hue is the color of autumn. Its earthy, warming flavor is the taste of autumn.
Or is it?
By this time of year, supermarkets have stocked up with all the pumpkins they can hold, and craft and home decor stores have cleared their shelves to make room for uncounted pumpkin-shaped tchotchkes. Starbucks this year started selling its famous — or infamous — pumpkin spice latte on August 28, prompting an abundance of “can’t wait!” and “too early!” posts on social media.
Pumpkin beer. Pumpkin muffins. Pumpkin ice cream. Pumpkin cheesecake. Pumpkin candles. For three months, pumpkins are everywhere. Until we reach Pumpkin Day, otherwise known as Thanksgiving, when by matter of cultural contract we agree to consume, for one extended weekend, the granddaddy of all pumpkin delicacies, pumpkin pie.
And then we lose all interest in seeing or eating pumpkins ever again, at least until next fall.
There are those who wonder, though, whether all this pumpkinmania isn’t some sort of con. They say it isn’t pumpkins that people fall in love with every fall. They say it is the comforting, warming spices that are typically matched up with pumpkin that give pumpkin dishes their signature aromas and flavors: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, clove.
Some go so far as to wonder whether pumpkin favorites could be made without pumpkin and taste the same just through the spices. Others go still further, saying that if you use canned pumpkin puree in your pumpkin dishes, chances are you aren’t eating pumpkin at all. This is because in 2016, Food and Wine Magazine sensationally reported that Libby’s, the company that has cornered nearly 90 percent of the pumpkin puree market, makes its puree with some other kind of squash.
Which is true, but misleading. We’ll get to that in a bit.
It wasn’t that long ago most of us were content to see pumpkins in two primary forms: as pie filling; and as the raw material for decorative jack o’lanterns. Maybe pumpkin ravioli was a thing. Maybe someone had a relative whose Halloween party bring-along was pumpkin bread.
But those days are over. It’s a pumpkin-spiced world, and we’d better get used to living in it.
Pumpkin is a winter squash, one of many varieties that reaches maturity in the fall. Other popular varieties include butternut, acorn, spaghetti, delicata, and kabocha.
The myth abounds online that pumpkins are not an integral element of pumpkin-flavored food. Local chefs, bakers, and brewers dismiss this notion. They say that pumpkins, or winter squash anyway, are central to all their pumpkin recipes, as are traditional pumpkin pie spices. The two have gone hand in hand for centuries.
What is true is that some preparers rely on commercially produced puree rather than roasted whole pumpkins because of the convenience and consistency of the canned product.
Lisa Parysz is the owner of the Cheesecake Lady in Hamilton. She says she couldn’t imagine making a pumpkin cheesecake without pumpkin, that the spices alone could never transform an ordinary cheesecake base into a convincing pumpkin treat. Pumpkins are necessary for texture and color. She has used fresh roasted pumpkins in the past, but uses canned puree today, saying that there isn’t enough of a difference in flavor to justify the additional work required to roast the pumpkins.
Chris Rakow is head brewer for River Horse Brewing Company in Ewing. Like many breweries these days, River Horse makes a pumpkin ale for release every autumn.
Rakow also uses canned puree, saying it would be impractical for the brewery to roast fresh pumpkins for several reasons. One is that it would need a large commercial kitchen to roast the quantity of pumpkin it needs for the volume of pumpkin ale it produces. Another is that beer takes time to ferment, and fresh pumpkins aren’t yet available in late summer, when the brewing process has to start if the beer is to be ready for fall.
He admits that pumpkins don’t contribute much in the way of fermentable sugar or pumpkin flavor to the beer, which has a brown ale base. But he says they are essential for providing a warm orange hue and distinctive, smooth mouthfeel. River Horse does use whole dried spices, not granulated ones, in its beer.
Gab Carbone is a co-owner of the Bent Spoon, a boutique ice cream shop in Princeton that has become known for its unusual flavors and commitment to using fresh, locally grown ingredients. She says the Bent Spoon does indeed roast fresh cheese pumpkins every year for its pumpkin ice cream.
Cheese pumpkins are so named because they are flattish and yellowish, resembling rounds of cheese, and Carbone feels that they have a more intense pumpkin flavor than other varieties. It’s not easy roasting them, she says, but the Bent Spoon has been making pumpkin ice cream since it opened in 2004 and has the process down by now.
Carbone says pumpkin ice cream is basically a frozen pumpkin custard, and that while quality whole spices are important to the flavor, the texture and earthiness of the custard could only come from actual pumpkin. The Bent Spoon also makes a pumpkin sorbet, the flavor of which she says is even more intense.
The Bent Spoon doesn’t draw the line at pumpkins either. The shop makes treats with other winter squash, including butternut, and also make several varieties of sweet potato ice cream, which have a similar flavor to pumpkin and play nicely with similar spice mixtures.
New Jersey farmers plant pumpkin seeds in July, anticipating that they will be ready for market by the end of September or early October. An abundance of rain has made this a tremendously difficult year for farmers, delaying plantings and shortening growing seasons for many crops. Pumpkins and winter squash, which rest on the ground as they grow, are particularly vulnerable to wet conditions, and at least one local farmer reported that he expected a drastically reduced yield this year. But others have said that they expect a fairly typical harvest.
The bulbous, sometimes enormous pumpkins commonly seen on hay rides and grinning from front porches are edible, but they are not the tastiest winter squash in the world. Farmer Jim Sansone Jr. of Sansone’s Farm Market in Hopewell calls these “face pumpkins.”
The truth is that many pumpkins and squash are fairly similar in flavor, with starchy orange flesh surrounding a riot of pulp and seeds. The standard preparation calls for cooks to scoop out the pulp and seeds and roast the flesh until tender.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds lists 79 varieties of pumpkin on its website, and 35 winter squash. Many of the pumpkins are designated as ornamental. It’s in the subtleties of the flavor differences that chefs and bakers find their favorite squash for culinary use. Face pumpkins have high water content, which makes them inefficient for roasting. Some say that sugar pumpkins, which are typically rounder and more compact than face pumpkins, have the best flavor. Others, like Carbone, prefer cheese pumpkins. The kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, is growing in popularity among area chefs.
Libby’s has cultivated a variety its calls the Dickinson pumpkin to use for its canned puree. A few years ago someone online referred to it as “Dickinson squash,” and all hell broke loose on the internet for a few days. The facts are that, no matter what you call it, Libby’s puree is the accepted baseline for pumpkin flavor and texture in America, and that the USDA classifies the Dickinson variety as a pumpkin.
This year at Great Road Farm in Skillman, farmer Kyle Goedde is growing a lot of cinnamon girl, a kind of sugar pumpkin, as well as some kabocha squash. Goedde says that pumpkins make up about a quarter of the total volume of winter squash he hopes to harvest this year. He is also growing butternut, delicata, spaghetti, and a variety called Blue Hubbard (which, yes, is actually blue).
Great Road Farm is different from most farms in that it has one chief client: Fenwick Hospitality Group. Entrepreneur Jim Nawn owns both operations. For a number of years, most of Great Road Farm’s produce went to one restaurant: Agricola on Witherspoon Street. But in the last year, Nawn and Fenwick Hospitality Group have added three new restaurants: The Dinky Bar and Kitchen, Cargot Brasserie, and Two Sevens Eatery and Cantina, all in Princeton.
Goedde, in his second year as manager of Great Road Farm, has been on staff at the farm for several years. Before that he ran his own farm in Hillsborough, called Harvest Moon Organic Farm, for two years.
He studied political science at Rutgers University, but graduating in 2008 found the job market difficult. He worked as a forklift operator for a time, which paid the bills but didn’t offer much job satisfaction. So he went to Hawaii to work on a farm as part of a loosely organized program called WWOOF, or World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming. Participants, called WWOOFers, get room and board at a farm in exchange for labor.
WWOOFing is how a lot of today’s rising generation of small farmers find out if they are cut out for the organic farming life. Goedde found that he did enjoy it, and after returning from Hawaii he did a three-year farm training program at North Slope Farm in Lambertville.
Today Great Road Farm provides all four restaurants, as well as Fenwick’s catering operation, with fresh ingredients. Goedde works with Fenwick’s chefs to decide what crops to grow. “I try to have individual meetings with each of the head chefs of the restaurants,” Goedde says. “They give me ideas about what they want, and I’ll kind of give them back an idea of what we can do.”
He reports to the restaurants three times a week on the progress of those crops, and based on his reports they order the produce that they want. As of last week, harvest of the pumpkin and winter squash crops was underway. Winter squash at Great Road Farm are planted on top of a hill, so there is pretty good drainage, and Goedde expects a decent yield despite the abundant rain.
One of those who depends on the hard work of Goedde and his staff is chef Mitresh Saraiya of Agricola, who is getting ready to put some pumpkin and winter squash items on his menu. “At Agricola we change our menu once every three to four weeks, which allows us to highlight ingredients that are at their peak in that very moment, as well as anything that’s moving out of season,” he says.
Saraiya has certain winter squash he is most comfortable working with and coordinates with Goedde to make sure that he has a steady supply of those once they are in season. But he is also always looking to broaden his base of expertise. So he also requests that the farm grow at least a few varieties he has not worked with so that he can experiment with them and learn what qualities they bring to the table.
With the pumpkin harvest just coming in, Saraiya hasn’t made any dishes with it just yet, but he is making plans. In years past, he says, Agricola has done plenty of pumpkin and squash soups. “Squash and pumpkins lend themselves as a sweet component, a starchy component, and a vegetal component,” he says. “With a little bit of onion and pumpkin spice, they can become this beautiful thing that you don’t need to add dairy or gluten to get the right mouthfeel as well.”
He singles out kabocha squash for its balanced flavor profile and relatively high starch content. “It allows you to puree it to get a very smooth, velvety texture without having to add butter or heavy cream to it,” he says. “That’s one that actually reminds me more of pumpkin than some of the other ones.”
Saraiya says he likes to use a lot of spices in his cooking and often looks to use traditionally Asian herbs in his cooking. Experimenting with acorn squash a few years back, he found that he could roast the squash with Chinese five spice — star anise, white pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and fennel seed — then coat it with sugar and use a blowtorch on it to finish a nice dish that was both sweet and savory.
He has also done dishes where he cuts a squash in half, scoops it out, roasts it face down, then stuffs it with fresh herbs, raisin, almonds, and grains from Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. “You get this squash with a lot of different components, flavors, and textures — and the best part is the skins are edible,” he says.
Agricola has featured pumpkin desserts as well, including pumpkin creme brulee and pumpkin ice cream. Saraiya says one memorable dessert was pumpkin bread pudding, made with roasted pumpkin folded into a brioche dough. “The bread itself has pumpkin flavor, then we make a pumpkin egg wash and blend it all together.”
For this year Saraiya’s preliminary plans include a squash or pumpkin soup made with pumpkin spice foam and poached pears. He is also considering bringing back a dish from last year, squash gnocchi. For that dish he roasts squash and pumpkin, drains it, and folds it into Agricola’s house ricotta gnocchi batter. This process yields a slightly orange dough that can be cut and poached.
Saraiya started at Agricola as a line cook in 2014 and worked his way up to the executive chef position. Before that he worked in the kitchen at the Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick. But he says before he ever worked in restaurant, he worked with pumpkins as a home cook. Pumpkin cheesecake became his go-to recipe for parties, and he remembers progressing from packaged puree to fresh pumpkin, realizing that he could coax more flavor from the fresh produce.
He says many of his earliest food memories and influence comes from his grandmother, who moved from India to live with his family when he was younger. He remembers helping to knead dough for her catering company. He worked in restaurants in high school before going to college and getting a degree in psychology. Instead of going into that field, he went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu Pittsburgh, earning valedictory honors upon graduation and propelling him into a career in cooking.
Saraiya says that the ubiquity of pumpkin spice in pumpkin and squash dishes is something that chefs wrestle with as they seek to create original dishes from scratch. He says one thing he does is to adjust the ratios among the spices, based on what he thinks will work best with a particular squash.
Many chefs also tend to accent their squash dishes with sage, especially as the days get colder. Saraiya says that is definitely a direction to go in, which is why he is trying to steer clear of it. He wants to give his diners something different to think about.
“I’m leaning more toward tarragon,” he says. “I was working with it (and squash) just a few days ago, and it felt like I want tarragon and squash to be my profile this year.”
There aren’t many who cook or bake with winter squash who don’t feel at least a little constrained by the almost symbiotic relationship pumpkins have with traditional spice mixtures. But most agree that a pumpkin dish without pumpkin isn’t a pumpkin dish at all. “For us bringing out the actual flavor of the pumpkin is the most important thing,” the Bent Spoon’s Carbone says. “We just try not to overdominate the pumpkin with the spices.”
She can think of one pumpkin flavor purveyor whose pumpkin-flavored treats don’t contain actual pumpkin: Starbucks. “We all know there’s no pumpkin puree in their coffee,” she says.
Like to see decorated pumpkins more than you like to eat them? Then check out the Hopewell Valley Arts Council’s Amazing Pumpkin Carve, Wednesday through Sunday, October 10 to 14, at Woolsey Park, 221 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville. Professional carvers turn 150-pound pumpkins into works of art. www.hvartscouncil.org