In Season: 5 Pumpkin Pickin' Recipes

There are lots of things that happen in October that remind us the seasons are changing. Leaves turn color and start to drop, the days get shorter and noticeably cooler, and the produce departments change to reflect the end of the summer season and the start of the fall harvest. Peaches and nectarines are replaced with apples and pears, and summer vegetables that have enjoyed expanded variety and shelf space start to shrink to more modest winter offerings. October marks a real change in mother nature's offerings and nowhere is that more evident than with pumpkins.

Click here to see the In Season: 5 Pumpkin Pickin' Recipes (Slideshow)

Pumpkin harvests are among the most time-sensitive crops produced today. Producers try to time their harvests to come off in the first and second weeks in September to allow time to harvest, pack, and ship their crop four to five weeks before Halloween so shoppers have time to enjoy them the whole season. During warm, dry summers the crop can come off early; risking quality issues later on. Cold, wet winters have the opposite effect — effectively shortening the window of availability. Pumpkins are also a regional crop, growing in all parts of the U.S., so sometimes one area will run short and it's a mad scramble at the end of the month to move pumpkins from one part of the U.S. to another.

Halloween is by far my favorite holiday — every year I carve between 90 and 120 pumpkins and varietal winter squashes. Over the years I have developed an unofficial classification for the kind of pumpkins that are ideal for carving:

  • "Carves like butter": These are varieties that are actually closer to squashes than pumpkins or gourds. They include the Queensland Blue or Jarrahdale (blue), Cinderella (pink), and Rouge Vif d' Etampes (red). The exterior of the pumpkin is easy to saw through and the interior is soft and easy to excavate and carve.
  • A stringy mess-: This sounds bad but it's really not. Most of what we consider traditional jack-o-lantern pumpkin varieties fall into this category. They are still great fun to carve; it just takes longer to remove the stringy insides.
  • Hard-shell "chipper": Most white pumpkin and banana squashes fall into this class. These are specimens that generally have a soft, non-stringy interior surrounded by a hard outer shell you have to get through first. Carving gives way to chipping with these — or the liberal application of power tools.

Pumpkin selection is a matter of personal taste and careful inspection. I pick a size and shape I like and then carefully inspect the exterior for cracks and blemishes that have not scarred over. If you are like me and buy (or grow) your pumpkins well in advance of Halloween, you should be extra careful to avoid fruit with blemishes, as these may cause the pumpkin to decay prior to the holiday. Most jack-o-lantern pumpkins are not suitable for eating, but I save the seeds for roasting. For all the "carves like butter" exotics, I save the parts I remove to make a creamy winter squash soup that I serve at Halloween. Click through the slideshow for additional pumpkin recipe ideas that are great not only on Halloween, but all season.

—    James Parker