By Brian Coatney
Autumn is upon us. Ears hearken to the music of cicadas crying in the cooling evenings. Noses lift to catch the hot, dry fragrance of baled hay and the aroma of smoke drifting from a tobacco barn. We drink in the vision, even if just in memory, of gleaming rows of Mason jars packed full of a summer’s garden bounty.
Although it’s rare to find a farmer who still ties his cornstalks into shocks, it’s quite common to find shocks decorating front lawns. Piled at the base of each of these shocks is, of course, the logo of fall — the pumpkin.
Brenda Luttrull, an enthusiast of the harvest season, said pumpkins capture the essence of fall.
“The love of the harvest captivates us, and pumpkins capture all of it for me,” she said. “They are such a gorgeous fruit. Their colors are cheerful and bright, and they are so versatile that using them for fall decorations is just a given.”
While the versatility of the pumpkin lends it to many uses, carving it into a jack-o’-lantern is still the most popular activity for families.
Carving pumpkins is an annual tradition for the Luttrulls. Ronny and Brenda invite family, friends and neighbors each year to join them in a night dedicated to turning plain pumpkins into fanciful (or fearful) works of art.
As many as 30 to 40 pumpkins of various colors, sizes and shapes will end up intricately carved with special tools or painted with a simple trio of triangles underscored by a wide, toothy grin.
Pumpkin carving has advanced far past the old days of grabbing a kitchen knife and a crayon. That’s the novice stage, said Brenda and her daughter, Ginny Poland, who is an enthusiast in her own right. Specialized tools and kits now proliferate stores and the web. Having a successful pumpkin carving requires organization and efficiency. The first rule is “clean your own pumpkin.”
Removing all the seeds and scraping out the extra flesh is necessary to get a high-quality design.
“It’s a messy event,” Poland said. “So the best way to go is to put down plastic sheets outside.”
Make smocks out of trash bags for the little ones or grown ups if a goo-fight ensues.
The shell should be thinned so the pumpkin is easier to cut and so light can shine through the carving.
Since Ginny does a lot of cooking with pumpkin, she separates the seeds in one pile and the scraped-out flesh in another. The seeds are then baked using a variety of flavors, and the flesh is used in pie filling, bread, cookies and her special pumpkin soup — which she bakes right inside the pumpkin.
When it’s time to decorate the pumpkin, some people use a marker, a kit or printed web designs.
Brenda likes to etch with the Dremel tool, whereas Ginny likes the pumpkin-cutting tools that come in a pumpkin carving kit. The Dremel etches the design onto the pumpkin by removing only the skin, letting the design show through in a gentle glow. Carving cuts through the flesh, exposing the interior.
After all the pumpkins are carved, everyone votes for the best design. In Brenda’s opinion, her son-in-law is the best carver.
“He is so meticulous. He cleans and smooths every line until it’s sharp and clear, and he goes for the most difficult designs.”
After spending hours creating a work of art, it’s essential to know how to care for the pumpkin so it lasts. Wash the outside with a weak bleach solution or vinegar to kill any bacteria on the skin. Vinegar is the best choice if you plan to “repurpose” your work of art into edible goodies after Halloween.
Cooking oil, such as corn oil, can be used to seal the cut surfaces if you plan to eat the pumpkin later. If you don’t plan to eat it, the bottom of the lid and any cut area can be coated with Vaseline or baby oil to prevent dehydration.
A carved pumpkin will eventually shrivel, no matter how many preventative methods. A quick way to refresh a dried pumpkin is to submerge it in water for a few hours, adding a little bleach or vinegar to the solution. After removing the carved pumpkin, be sure to dry it thoroughly inside and out.
In order to get plenty of pumpkins, Brenda usually goes to the Bluegrass Auction in Elkton or any of the U-pick farms in the area. Pumpkins abound at fall markets and the pumpkin auctions held throughout the month of September and most of October.
This year, Ginny and her husband, Jack, are growing pumpkins for the kids and hosting the carving at their home.
“Jack loves his garden, and he thought it would help build the tradition in the kids’ memories if they got to go to the pumpkin patch and pick their own,” Ginny said.
The couple is experimenting with more than a dozen varieties of pumpkins this year on their small farm near Crofton. Ginny planted 28 hills, with four plants per hill. An average of three pumpkins per plant adds up to a whopping harvest of 336 pumpkins. Plenty for everyone.
Extra pumpkins can be stored for months with proper preparation, Ginny said. She plans to use every sweet morsel from the harvest.
After the pumpkins are harvested, they will cure, or harden, and be stored in a cool, dry spot for winter. None of the pumpkins should be touching when stowed, and loose hay is a great blanket to protect and cushion them. Good storage can keep them edible from six to nine months.
5 ways to personalize your jack-o’-lantern
1. Spray it. Chrome spray paint makes it look like a mirror, black paint creates a background for stencils, but any color can produce an interesting look.
2. Stick it. Use rhinestone stickers to create a design with sparkly colors
3. Shape it. Use cookie cutters and a mallet to create hearts, stars or other shapes.
4. Stack it. Build a pumpkin pyramid with different sizes, textures and colors, such as white, peach, blush, gray, green, yellow and turquoise. Some pumpkins are knobby or textured when they grow.
5. Stake it. Make a pumpkin totem pole or a figurine on a stick like a scarecrow or other comical character. Pumpkins can even be stacked and painted white to look like a snowman.
Pumpkin, pancetta and sage soup cooked in a pumpkin
Serve guests a hearty roast pumpkin and pancetta soup baked inside pumpkin shells.
4 small pumpkins
1 cup diced pancetta
2 tbsp oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
1 ½ cups pumpkin puree
1 cup smoked turkey (or ham) meat
2 tbsp sage, chopped finely
2 Bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Garnish:
Diced pancetta pieces, cooked and crumbled
Whole Sage leaves
1. Pre-heat the oven to 360 F.
2. Prepare the pumpkins. Cut out the tops of the pumpkins and scrape out all seeds and stringy bits. Save the seeds to roast and serve later as garnish for the soup (pepitas).*
3. Brush the outside of the pumpkins with olive oil; season the insides with salt and pepper. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake for approximately 20 – 25 minutes until the pumpkins start to soften. Remove from oven and let cool slightly.
4. To prepare the soup, sauté the pancetta pieces in oil in a large pot until crisp. Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic pieces and stir over medium-high heat until they soften.
5. Now add the beans, chicken stock, pumpkin purée, smoked turkey leg (or ham), sage and bay leaf and bring to a boil.
6. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat and let simmer for about 15 minutes.
7. Fill each pumpkin shell with the soup and bake in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and garnish with the crisp pancetta pieces, Sage leaves and pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds).
*To prepare the pepitas, mix the pumpkin seeds in a small bowl and coat with olive oil. Add seasoning (I used salt and a little chili powder), then roast in the oven for 15 minutes at 360 F.
—Recipe adapted from “Closet Cooking”