The Autumn Squash Challenge Round #2

Pumpkin Pureé and Popped Amaranth

To be honest, I've never been a huge fan of Halloween, which is funny, because I make costumes as a hobby. But there's a stark difference between coming up with something clever and cheap (Glow stick stick-men! Static cling! Two peas in a pod!) for a one night dance and spending months weeping and freaking out over making a physical outfit to match the often unreasonable proportions and attributes of a cartoon. Anyone who's ever been in the situation of a cosplayer at work or watched one of those "Shit Cosplayers Say" videos is well aware of how out of hand this hobby can get. Budgets are blown, toxic chemicals are inhaled, too-tight wigs are suffered. It's a lot like the kind of stuff models go though, I imagine. There's pain, discomfort, and hunger suffered for beauty - I once went a week before a convention eating nothing but raisin bread with margarine because we were too busy sewing to buy food.

Maybe it's because I'm introverted, or because I've always been bad at making Halloween costumes that were anything other than stereotypical (cat! witch! another cat!), but this end of October holiday just didn't hold much for me after I wasn't allowed to go candy-collecting anymore. My mother, be it out of love or actual lack of money, made the Halloween costumes my sister and I wore every year when we were children, with the patience of a saint and mega creativity. We may not have been as fancy as the other kids in school with their store-bought princess dresses, but I had custom-made butterfly wings that could probably have concussed someone, and my nine-year-old sister was the best sheet of leopard-print roadkill anyone had ever seen. We were proud of our hard work. Halloween has its benefits, therefore: I've gained an obsession-level love for the construction of costumes thanks to Mom, a good bunch of ingenuity genes, and a fondness for stabbing pointy things into an unsuspecting vegetable and lighting it up for display (especially when it's designed to mimic my grotesque plastic surgery eye scar).

Let's just say I had the scariest costume ever,
and Spousal Abuse Barbie got extra candy that year.
Most anyone who's celebrated Halloween has at one point or another carved up a Jack o' Lantern. A dear friend of mine once did up about a hundred of them for around his parents' house, both traditional (triangle eyes, jagged mouth) and non (a light-up Pacman and monster pumpkin eating bleeding apples). The two of us rubbed our hands raw pushing knives through their tough skin, but it was a lot of fun, and I got from it seeds that sprouted like weeds in my garden at home and a couple years' worth of fulfillment for my carving quota. Once I'd moved out on my own and felt the desire to carve again, I'd picked up this particular guy in the above photo, but he only lasted a day after he'd been exposed to the heat of our apartment, and then promptly turned fuzzy and blue, so I now know that I can't cut up pumpkins in this building unless I'm cooking them.

Technically speaking, pumpkins are a type of squash, but for some reason get their own considerations by those people who hate zucchini but love pumpkin pie. Go figure. Maybe I'm a purist, spoiled by the first pumpkin pie I'd ever made and tasted in Orillia (directed by GF's recipe, sent via email), but I refuse to cook with canned pumpkin pureé unless I'm forced to. Making my own is stupid easy and ensures I'm getting a local food - if Nova Scotia's good at growing anything in particular, it's apples and winter veggies. Not only is it kind of soothing to roast a pumpkin, as they make your whole house smell autumn-y, but you also get the seeds from them, which you can roast, although you'll have to find instructions somewhere else, because, as my first Autumn Squash Challenged post indicated, I still haven't mastered how to do it yet.

Because I'm lazy and GF's much better at explaining this, I'm going to let her 2010 self do the explaining for how to roast a pie pumpkin (jack o' lanterns are bigger and need more sugar to taste good). While pumpkin smush is good for making pretty much anything involving the season of fall, you're going to want to not do what I did and mix your pumpkin with cinnamon and oatmeal. Sounds good, looks... not good. Tastes okay.

A large serrated knife (a clean handsaw works too)
And ice cream scoop (or a big spoon; I find the scoop is easier, though)
A large pot


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Step 1: Determine if it's a Jack-o-Lantern pumpkin or a pie pumpkin. Pie pumpkins are the smaller, rounder type of pumpkin. Jack-o-lanterns are the big ones. This is important! Trust me!

Step 2: After determining the kind of pumpkin you've got, wash it under warm running water. DON'T USE SOAP.  Just make sure it's all nice and clean. Maybe hug it a few times too. You're about to get very intimate with this pumpkin, so it's okay. 

Step 3: Cut the pumpkin in half. Use your large knife (or handsaw) and use a sawing motion. A serrated knife is better than a smooth one! They both cut the same, but the smooth knife is more likely to slip and hurt you!

Step 4: SCOOP OUT THE GOOEY INSIDES! You wanna get rid of all that stringy, dangly, slimy stuff! BUT SAVE THE SEEDS! Place them in a bowl of water and rub them between your hands. Then pick out the orange bits (throw that away) and drain off the water. Spread them out on a clean towel or paper towel to dry and they're ready to roast. 

Step 5: After the pumpkin is all scooped out, put it into a oven-able container with a lid. Depending on the oven, baking the pumpkin can take 45 minutes to an hour and a half. After the 30 minute mark, check it every fifteen minutes or so and when it's nice and soft. 
Step 6: Once it's soft enough it is easy to scoop out the guts with a table spoon.  Use the spoon to gently lift and scoop the cooked pumpkin out of the skin. It should come off the skin pretty easy if it's cooked enough. Sometimes the skin will lift right off with your fingers! Put the pumpkin into a container or big bowl of some sort. If you find that there's a lot of water coming from the pumpkin, let it sit for like... 20-30 minutes and then drain the water out of the container. Otherwise your gloop will be really runny.

Step 7: IT'S TIME TO PUREE THE PUMPKIN! Hand mixer, blender, food processor... What you have there to do it with... PUREE THAT PUMPKIN!

Pureéd pumpkin, as any baker knows, is good for everything this time of year, from pie to muffins to probably spice lattés (but who knows what goes in those). I've got some leftover from the atrocious pumpkin oatmeal I'd made, and it'll probably be turned into some sort of sweet, as they're more reliable and satisfying. I made killer chocolate chip pumpkin muffins last year. Let's aim for that.

In related news, whilst reading Gluten-Free Girl and debating what to do with my pureé, I suddenly decided to make popped amaranth. Anyone up on their health craze reading will recognize amaranth as an ancient grain that comes from an ornamental flower, rich in lysene, an amino acid that's harder to find in plant than animal food. Amaranth seed basically looks like tiny yellow-y styrofoam balls - the ones that pepper your carpet when you break a big piece of foam from the box your microwave came in. It's got a kind of nutty taste, is rather cheap, and can be puffed up like popcorn. 

Let me try to explain how much fun popping amaranth is using a video (which I swear was HD before I uploaded it).

I'd been rather intimidated to try popping this little grain. I'd heard from multiple sources that it was super easy to do, but any recipe that entails "heating a skillet on high" usually has me balking and GF running from the room. But I was apparently having the sort of day where anything is possible if you don't think about it too much, and so before I'd realized what was going on I was throwing seeds in a pan with a spoon and listening to the sizzle of oil-less cooking. The sound popping amaranth makes is rather soothing, to be honest, like a gentle rain. It's also a lot of fun, and way less hard than I'd imagined. Basically, you put a little frying pan on high heat, toss in a couple spoonfuls of amaranth at a time, let them pop and stir until they're all turning a chocolate colour, then throw them in a bowl. You can use it to make homemade granola bars (like I did; just toss a bunch of grains and nuts into a pan with some sticky coating, like honey or molasses), as cereal, or probably to make cookies or something. In any case, it's an adorable food and I'll be finding more ways to include it in my diet.

Popped on the left, raw on the right.
So basically,

1) No recipe for anything especially different today, but now you know how to make your own pumpkin pureé. If I ever get around to making muffins I'll put up instructions.

2) Popped amaranth is super fun and meditative. Plus it's good for you.

Inconclusive and unhelpfully,
- Leah

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