November 26, 2012

Don't Throw Out Those Cute Little Pumpkins!

Was your Thanksgiving table decorated with pretty little orange pumpkins this year? Have you had a small collection of squash welcoming visitors on your front porch since Halloween? Are you done with them now? Wait! Don't throw them away! You can eat those things, you know.

Walking through the neighborhood, I keep seeing groups of small pumpkins sitting in the gutter or perched on top of leaf piles in the street, waiting to be picked up by Davis Waste Removal and taken to the landfill. I'm not talking moldy, old carved jack-o-lanterns here, but whole, unblemished and still perfectly good fruit that in many cases would make a tasty pumpkin pie (or two or three).

Good pumpkins in a leaf pile

Those big pumpkins we all buy for carving at the end of October aren't the best for eating (except maybe for the seeds), but the small sugar pumpkin varieties are grown for just that. Their flesh has a light, flaky texture perfect for turning into dessert, as opposed to the stringy insides of a large carving pumpkin. There's a good chance those 1 to 3 pound little pumpkins you bought to set on the mantel this month are good eatin'.

Pumpkins will stay fresh for at least a month and up to two depending on storage conditions. Ones that have been sitting on a shaded porch out of the rain and in the mild temperatures we've been having are probably fine. I just pulled two off our porch last night and baked them in preparation for some pie making.

Lil' Pump-ke-mon Hybrid (l) and Sugar Pumpkin (r)

With pumpkins this small, I remove the skin like I would do with an orange. Slice off the top and bottom, stand the squash back up on the now-flat bottom, and then take off the skin by curving your knife down the sides of the pumpkin the same way you would cut the peel off an orange. Then cut the pumpkin in half, remove the seeds and pulp, and cube.

Cubes of fresh pumpkin

For a side dish, I prefer nearly-dry roasting because it browns and carmelizes the cubes and brings out the sugar. For baking (including freezing for use later in pies) I prefer to spread the cubes in a single layer in a baking dish, add a 1/4 inch of water to the bottom of the dish, and cover. 15-30 minutes in a 400 degree oven will do the trick, with larger chunks taking more time. When they're done, just cool, mash and use or freeze.

Of course some people think the best part of the pumpkin is the seeds, and my sugar pumpkins had loads of them. Some of what I baked yesterday I had just pulled off the vine, and I couldn't believe how easy it was to extract the seeds. None of that sticky, slimy mess you get when trying to remove seeds from a carving pumpkin. I'm not sure if it was the variety or the fact that I had just clipped it from the plant, but separating those seeds was a breeze and they were very clean. To roast them, toss with a small amount of oil, salt to your liking, spread in a single layer on a baking sheet, and put in a 250 degree oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Seeds from sugar pumpkins, before roasting

So go rescue your cute, little pumpkins right now! With a bit of work you can have a pumpkin pie on the counter and some crunchy, tasty and healthy snacks for the lunch box.

November 5, 2012

November Harvest & Garden Tasks

One month ago we put down our garden tools for a day and headed over to Guinda for the annual Hoes Down fest, but the very next day and every day since, that hoe (and all the other garden tools) has been back in use and it definitely does not feel like the work season is over on our Central Valley mini-farm.

Pomegranate on the tree

Of all the current garden tasks, harvesting is creating the heaviest load. The particular combination of fruits and veggies on our homestead means we are now in full harvest and processing mode, more so than in September or October. This is mostly due to our large pomegranate tree. So far Mr. English has harvested a little over half the pomegranates from the tree and already we have three burlap sacks full of fruit in the garage, not including the crate I already dealt with.

If you love pomegranates, you know about the painstakingly delicate process involved in extracting the seeds without crushing them. I have a system I like, but it still takes one person about one hour to pull all the seeds from six large pomegranates. Do the math on several hundred pieces of fruit and you begin to see what a task I still have ahead of me if I want to process all of it. This is why we give away lots of pomegranates this time of year (let me know if you'd like any!)

Pomegranate seed pockets

About 4 hours worth of seeding

In addition to the pomegranates, we're also happily dealing with about 50 pounds of English walnuts. Mr. English's father owns a walnut orchard up near Chico, so every fall we gratefully receive the gift of enough walnuts to get us through a year's worth of baking and cooking. Of course, the nuts arrive in the shell, still needing to be cured, shelled and frozen. A Davebilt #43 cracker would get the job done in about an hour, but at $150, that's not a justifiable expense when we only crack one 50-lb bag per year. So, instead we use the one-at-a-time nutcracker, and it takes one person about 45 minutes to create a pound of shelled nuts. This is when it helps to get the whole family (and friends) involved.

English walnuts

With the gorgeous weather we've been having, we're also still harvesting and processing lots of eggplant and peppers, and even basil. Most of the winter squash is still on the vines and will need to be pulled, cured and stored before the first frost arrives, probably later this month. In addition to the harvesting, I'm also ripping out summer plants as they finish up and amending the soil before cover cropping or planting with winter crops like garlic, onions, peas and greens of all kinds. That will mean another trip out to the horse barn on the outskirts of town to get another free load of aged horse manure, probably this week before it starts to rain. Those forecast showers are probably the first break I'll get in the garden!

If it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm not. I love the harvest season, it's just that since ours comes a tad later around here, it means we are still in full swing and will be for a few weeks, when others have been winding down for the last month. Not everybody is winding down, though. Just yesterday we joined about 40 other people at Frate Sole olive orchard to pick olives for another Foods Resource Bank fundraiser. We picked about 500 pounds of olives in an afternoon, but most of the trees there are still loaded with fruit and they will be harvesting for a number of weeks to come. So, we are in good company.

What are you still working on in your garden this month? Any relief in sight?