Of the many rituals that signify the holiday dinner, there are two that serve as the bookends that make Thanksgiving more than just another lowercase meal: the carving of the turkey to start the festivities and the serving of the pumpkin pie at the very, very end.
Now for turkey lovers, that order is fine. But for us pumpkin lovers, it’s a mighty long time to wait. Too long.
Rather than sit around like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin to appear, can’t we celebrate the squash throughout the meal?
Let’s step away from the pie crust and rethink pumpkin at Thanksgiving. It’s a versatile vegetable that can be used in many ways. Roast it whole or in pieces, saute it as a side dish or simmer it slowly for soup. Bake it into breads and rolls both savory and sweet.
And the number of varieties available seems to increase with every season, as more and more heirloom cooking pumpkins show up at farmers markets and grocery stores, each with its own subtleties in color and flavor.
As for introducing the new uses for pumpkin at our Thanksgiving meal, a logical place to start is with a salad. Try adding roasted pumpkin to peppery greens for a contrast in texture and flavor. One is buttery and sweet; the other is crunchy and sharp. Together they play up each other’s best qualities.
Roasting is a simple way to cook squash, and it’s perfect for coaxing out the subtle flavors and rich, caramelized sweetness. Peel, clean and coarsely chop the pumpkin. Toss the pieces with red pearl onions, a little olive oil and a sprinkling of chopped rosemary and thyme. Roast at 350 degrees for just under an hour, tossing occasionally so the pieces cook evenly, until they are tender, caramelized and fragrant.
Cool until ready to serve -- the pumpkin can be made a day ahead and refrigerated. Just before serving, toss with a blend of frisee and mixed greens, and fold in crisp bacon and toasted walnuts.
And don’t forget to save those seeds -- they’re terrific toasted on their own, or use them to lend color and crunch to other dishes. They’re often also a good substitute for nuts when allergies are an issue. Peel and toast your own, or buy the seeds -- also known as pepitas -- whole or already shelled at the market.
Try adding the toasted seeds to stuffing, another staple of the Thanksgiving meal. Combine the seeds with toasted cubes of corn bread, sauteed Spanish chorizo and corn. Throw in a few roasted poblano chiles for a little heat, and season with oregano, cumin and Spanish smoked paprika. Toss the stuffing with melted butter and chicken broth, and then bake in the oven until the topping is crisp and golden and the contents are warmed through.
The selection of good-for-cooking pumpkin varieties now extends well beyond the old favorite, Sugar Pie. Reading a seed catalog or strolling through the produce section, you might find pumpkins such as the Long Island cheese squash, named because it resembles a massive round of cheddar and which is especially good for baking in pies, or the French Galeux d’Eysines, which may be better known for its warty shell, but it has a really fresh, vibrant flavor.
But you don’t need to have an heirloom pumpkin to cook these dishes. In fact, for many preparations, canned pumpkin puree works well. Made from a variety of pumpkin closer in looks to butternut squash, the puree can be used for soups, risottos, sauces, dressings and a number of baked goods in addition to pie.
Of course, making your own puree is simple. Halve the pumpkin crosswise, scraping out the seeds and pulp. Place the halves, cut-side-down, on a foil-lined baking tray and bake at 350 degrees for an hour or so until the flesh is tender (carefully lift one of the halves and test the flesh under the shell, it should spoon out easily).
Remove the pumpkin from the oven and cool slightly, then spoon the flesh out of the shell and puree until smooth. Push the puree through a strainer to remove any solids and store until needed. It’ll keep, refrigerated, for a week and will freeze up to three months.
One way to use the puree is in a fragrantly spiced pumpkin cake. Like bananas, pumpkins lend a moist texture and tender crumb to baked goods without adding fat.
While most pumpkin cakes are finished with a cream cheese- or lemon-based frosting, why not try a sour cream ganache? Chocolate and pumpkin are an unexpected pairing, but adding sour cream to the frosting gives a pleasantly light tang. Be sure to use a chocolate that isn’t too dark and bitter. This is one place where semisweet is an improvement.
Not to make that pumpkin pie jealous, but who knows? Now that you’ve gotten your pumpkin fix in other places, you might start noticing all those other pies on the table.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, toss the pumpkin and onions with 3 tablespoons olive oil, one-half teaspoon salt, several grinds of pepper, the rosemary and thyme. Place the vegetables on a foil-lined baking pan and roast until softened and lightly caramelized, about 45 minutes, tossing every 15 minutes for even coloring. Remove the pan and allow the pumpkin and onions to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon until it is crisp, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and remove the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate to cool. Drain all but 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat, discarding or reserving the rest for another use.
Add the leek strips to the pan and place over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until they soften and just begin to color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir in the white wine and cook, scraping any of the flavorful bits that stick to the bottom of the pan, until the wine evaporates, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
Place the leek strips and any cooking liquid in a medium bowl. Whisk in the vinegar and mustard. Drizzle in the walnut oil while whisking to emulsify. Season with one-eighth teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper, or to taste. Set aside in a warm place.
Toss the walnuts with 3 tablespoons olive oil and one-half teaspoon salt. Spread on a sheet pan and toast in the 375-degree oven until the nuts are fragrant and a rich brown color, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove and cool slightly. Set aside. The salad components can be made up to this point 1 day in advance. Refrigerate the components separately, and warm the dressing before folding into the salad.
In a large serving bowl, toss the greens with two-thirds of the vinaigrette. Gently fold in the roasted pumpkin and onions, the bacon and toasted walnuts. Add extra vinaigrette as needed to lightly coat the contents.
Serve immediately, or cover and chill until needed, up to several hours in advance. Allow to warm slightly before serving.
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