know your process

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Morning sun on a steamer full of freshly-cut pumpkin chunks—it's a beautiful thing. Not only does it please the eyes in this moment, this batch of steaming squash represents a real accomplishment worth appreciating at a much deeper level.

Now there's an assertion you won't hear every day. Let me explain.

Today is Nov. 11, which brings a perfect symmetry into play. Exactly six months ago to the day, and a fine May day it was, I planted a small plot of Amish pie pumpkins in my garden. Then, spring was ascendent and daytime temps were beginning to tease with heat. Even more importantly, night temps were staying in the high 40s. Into a low mound of compost about two feet across I plunged a dozen seeds.  I adjusted the drip watering tubes around the mound and I walked away. 

Pumpkins are so easy to grow it's ridiculous. As long as they get adequate water, they're likely to thrive, and mine did. I trained the vines to a fence and let them climb and meander. When they fruited, I was initially concerned that only four pumpkins came in, but when I saw how large they were growing, I stopped worrying and slung supports underneath the burgeoning, pale orange globes. OK, I admit it; I used old pairs of my boxers. Picture a huge pumpkin bulging out of those. Talk about plumber's crack! But It was a good thing I did it; the largest of the pumpkins hanging off the chainlink fence came in at 33 lbs. and without support, these would have torn the vines from their perches.

But this is hardly the end of the story.

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Riley wrote of the time "When the frost is on the punkin"; I followed his advice and let the first light frost dust the pumpkins before harvesting, which helps set them for curing and, so I'm told, it sweetens them a bit. I sawed through the tough stalks, hauled them into the house, wiped off the dirt, and stored them in the basement for a few weeks. 

I had plans for these monsters. The flesh of the Amish pie pumpkin is particularly delicious. They cut fairly easily, which is no small matter when you face them down on your counter. This morning I began by snapping off the stems nearly thick as my wrist and then with my sharpest, largest-bladed chef's knife, I hacked the rinds into fat slices. No fingers were lost, though there was one close call. Then, using a paring knife, I cut away the soft threads and seeds (rinsed and drying for storage), peeled away the outer skin, and cut everything into chunks.

I've been steaming pumpkin for 6 hours now, one batch at a time. This is better than boiling, as it preserves more of the vitamin content and flavor. I puree the softened chunks in a food processor, ladle it into freezer baggies (alternating the most commonly used amounts of 1 cup and 3 cups), and then carry it all down to the floor freezer in my basement.

The yield: about 50 cups of pumpkin. That could be 50 pumpkin pies, 50 loaves of pumpkin beer bread (I make it with Guinness), or a dozen large pots of Southwestern Pumpkin Soup (tonight's supper). Let's just say those four whopping pumpkins will feed us all winter and spring. Here's a look at the kind of thing I like to make—a classic pie recipe from an old English cookbook, but tweaked with my own additions: some coffee liqueur (homemade, of course) in the custard and the infamous, flaky vodka crust.

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Is it worth it? I think so. The relative ease of growing the pumpkins is matched only by the ease of processing them—there's the time spent, but it's not particularly difficult labor. I'll be able to pull a package of pureed pumpkin from my freezer any time to start a meal for family and friends. It's chock full of vitamins A, C, and E, plus a range of other vitamins, minerals, and nutritious compounds.

The key to this kind of garden-to-table success is to know your process. I paid nothing for these seeds—they're heirloom, and I've cultivated and saved them for years. My garden is set up and I know how to make pumpkins grow. I coached these plants through a severe hailstorm (they got macerated but rebounded), as well as through record high heat in July. I knew how to support the vines, when to harvest the fruits, and how to cut, steam, puree, and freeze the pumpkin. 

And I know how to use it in baking and cooking.

No one showed me how to do this. I learned it all the hard way, through trial and error. Now  the work is largely behind me, and it's a good thing because winter is setting in on the Front Range of Colorado. It's been a good day putting up all this food, and it will carry me and mine through some chilly nights ahead. I'll enjoy the break, but already, spring planting is on my mind.

And that's why I can say I honestly feel a deep joy when I see the first tendril springing out of the stalk of a new pumpkin plant—because that's another signifier of the process that goes on and on.

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