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The Many Faces Of The Great Pumpkin

I rarely wear a costume on Halloween, don't have kids and live in an apartment building, which means no trick-or-treaters. Yet each year, I make a batch of pumpkin cupcakes topped with a swirl of dark chocolate ganache. I just can't help myself, and my co-workers don't seem to mind.

I just love pumpkins — everything about them. I love pumpkin seeds in salads and in bread. I love pumpkins pureed and baked into cakes. And I love how they gently ease me out of summer and into what comes next.

When October arrives in San Francisco, my thoughts turn to soaking up as much sun as possible before winter descends — and dreaming up ways to use all those pumpkins I see pretty much everywhere. Few other vegetables are available only during their season. Come late September, farmers markets are overloaded, but good luck finding a pumpkin in April.

Pumpkins seem almost to be fall. This time of year means days of shrinking light, goodbye to good tomatoes, leaves turning and drifting down in great piles, a change in the air and the return of my favorite orange squash.

Whether it is because they're as fat and round as a harvest moon or because their sweet, soft texture is both comforting and healthful, pumpkins help soothe that end-of-summer ache.

When I was growing up in Northern California, we planted pumpkins in our backyard garden mostly just for carving for Halloween. If we'd skipped the garden that year, we went to the pumpkin patch down the road and sipped apple cider while picking out the best specimens. We'd lug them home, and my dad would scoop out their pulpy innards, saving the seeds for later consumption. For a long time, I was more concerned with the perfect pumpkin shape than its contents, but I've come to appreciate the inner beauty of the pumpkin as well.

The pumpkin is a multi-use vegetable. The seeds are delicious after being soaked in lightly salted water and then dried in the oven, perfect for scattering on salads or eating out of hand, and the flesh is sweet and mild, especially after a sojourn in the oven. Then, too, there are the health benefits: Pumpkins are high in vitamin A, iron and potassium.

American Indians recognized the pumpkin's versatility, using it for food and medicine. The large orange squash originated in Central and South America, and early settlers of the Americas quickly learned to cultivate it — stewed pumpkin became a popular dish — and made it a diet staple. Colonists made the first pumpkin pies, for example, by filling a de-seeded pumpkin with milk, spices and honey, and baking it in hot ashes.

Nowadays in the United States, pumpkins are grown primarily for processing into cans of pumpkin pie mix or pumpkin puree, with a small percentage grown for ornamental sales through you-pick farms, farmers markets and retail sales. Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California are the top pumpkin-producing states.

Though the "Connecticut field" variety is the traditional American pumpkin used for jack-o'-lanterns, smaller, thicker-walled pumpkins are ideal for pies and baking. Often called sugar pumpkins, they are much sweeter and better for cooking. While you can eat the larger jack-o'-lantern varieties, a good rule to remember is the smaller the pumpkin, the more flavorful the results. Like most squash, pumpkins keep well in winter when stored in a cool, dry place for up to six months.

Most of us eat pumpkins in pie, or occasionally in a soup, but oh so much more can be done with these autumnal gems.

Swap chunks of pumpkin for butternut squash in a creamy curry, or simply bake slices of pumpkin drizzled with olive oil until the oven's heat caramelizes it all. Fold pumpkin puree into a lightly sweetened cake, or tuck it into ravioli topped with fried sage leaves. If you have a few spare hours, fill a whole pumpkin with a root vegetable stew, and bake until the top is lightly blackened and melting.

Preparing puree from a whole pumpkin may seem like a lot of work, but it isn't. Cut a pumpkin in half and discard the stringy insides, then peel and cut the pumpkin into chunks. Place in a saucepan, cover with water and boil until the chunks are tender. After cooling, puree in a food processor or mash by hand. Use the puree in any recipe that calls for pureed pumpkin. Pumpkin from a can is perfectly acceptable, but lacks a fresh-from-the-field taste.

Some years ago, my mom made pumpkin soup for Thanksgiving dinner. We hardly noticed the turkey. She served the soup in a hollowed-out pumpkin placed in the center of the table.

My dad had picked the biggest pumpkin he could find from the garden, and it felt absolutely right to celebrate this most American of holidays with the quintessential squash of its native inhabitants. But a pumpkin — in soup, stew, cake or roasted in long, slender slices — is appropriate on any chilly fall evening, whatever you happen to be celebrating.

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Nicole Spiridakis