Pumpkins Perfect for Foggy Berkeley

By SHIRLEY BARKER Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 18, 2004

As with many newcomers to Berkeley, I thought summers here would be hot. Dreams of heat-loving, even tropical, vegetables floated through my mind. The reality is cold July fog and not a ripe tomato this side of the hills. Of those that do well, beans are predictable, zucchini monotonous, and winter squash culinarily challenged. These last two members of the Cucurbitaceae family do have one outstanding relative that qualifies as a seasonal necessity, not just a ritual: the pumpkin. 

Pumpkins are for some reason ridiculously easy to grow in Berkeley, even in a small space. The seeds are big and germinate rapidly enough to interest the very young gardener. Their huge leaves clamber around in the most intransigent way. Enormous butter-yellow flowers positively trumpet their emergence. And then, while one’s back is turned, distracted perhaps by summer visitors, disaster strikes and all the leaves wilt and mildew. By that time the rest of the summer vegetables have taken over their space, so it comes as a surprise to find that the neighbor-child’s bright orange soccer balls glinting through the bean leaves are—pumpkins! 

Pumpkins are said to like rich soil with lots of compost and side dressings and mulch and water. No doubt all that’s true. They do pretty well without, too, except for water. A five gallon pail of it once or twice a week for each plant is about right, directed at the roots, never overhead. A soaker hose works well, turned on once or twice a week for half an hour. Pumpkins are not necessarily huge, either. Several small varieties are available in local nurseries, such as Sugar Baby, Baby Bear and Tom Thumb. All are sweet and full of flavor. They can be trained vertically, saving space. Or start them within a tomato hoop and let them cascade. Wait until May warmth before sowing seed or setting out plants. 

Pumpkins have an excellent, rich flavor every bit as exuberant as their appearance and behavior. As the lover of pumpkin pie knows, they have an affinity to spices with no loss of their own distinction. They need not always appear in a crust. A mousse-like dessert can be quickly assembled from just-cooked pumpkin, by beating in small amounts of sweet butter, soft brown sugar, spices (especially cinnamon and ginger), and eggs, and baking in a buttered dish until set. Allow one egg for each cup of pumpkin, a tablespoon each of butter and sugar, and at least half a teaspoon of the spices, not forgetting a pinch of salt. 

First, however, you must corral and cook your pumpkin. Scrub the shell clean, whack it in half with a cleaver, and scrape out the seeds and fibers. Invert the halves on to a baking sheet and bake for about thirty minutes at 400 degrees until tender. While waiting, toast the seeds in a dry wok, sprinkle with salt and set aside for later snacking. When the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, scrape out the flesh and discard the skin. Leave the oven on, for now is a good time to beat up your dessert and bake it for thirty minutes. If the center still wobbles, turn down the oven for five or ten more minutes. True to its melodramatic temperament, pumpkin keeps poorly, so cool and freeze remaining pumpkin in usable portions.