Embrace All Things Pumpkin

Add a healthy pop to pasta with this Penne in Pumpkin Vodka Sauce recipe, plus tips for cooking with pumpkins and a sweet and savory recipe roundup
Penne in Pumpkin Vodka Sauce

Photography Terry Brennan, Food Styling Lara Miklasevics

They’re back! I see them starting to appear on doorsteps (waiting to become squirrel snacks?) and in stores. These bright orange pumpkins are a sure sign of the season. And a search for “pumpkin spice” on Google will show about 149 million results are at your fingertips. Sure, a pumpkin spice latte, muffin, or cookie is delicious, but there is a lot more to these veggies.

Apart from making delicious dishes, pumpkin, which belongs to the same gourd family as cucumbers, squash, and melons, is high in fiber and a good source of beta-carotene (vitamin A) and potassium. Using them in cooking is a delicious way to slip in some vitamins and flavor to savory dishes, too. In the recipe for Penne in Pumpkin Vodka Sauce below, you can use either the can of pumpkin purée or make your own. Keep in mind that the variety you often use for jack-o’-lanterns has a more watery and stringy flesh while the sugar or pie pumpkins provide more flesh for recipes.

Minnesota-grown pie pumpkins at Lunds & Byerlys Highland Bridge

Mary Subialka

Cooking with Pumpkin

Cook fresh pumpkin much the same way you do winter squash—either steam, bake, or microwave it. It’s best not to boil the pumpkin as it will soak up the water and make a watery purée (and subsequent dish, pie, etc.).

To steam: Cut pumpkin in half and remove seeds and stringy pulp. Cut into smaller pieces and peel then place in a steamer or metal colander that will fit in a covered pot. Put over boiling water, cover, and steam for about 50 minutes or until tender. Mash and purée in a blender or food processor.

To bake: Heat oven to 350°F. Split pumpkin in half and remove seeds and stringy pulp. Place halves, cut side down, on a baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour or until tender when pierced with a fork. Spoon the soft pulp out of the shell and use in recipes or further process to create a purée.

To microwave: Cut in half and remove the seeds and stringy pulp. Wrap each half loosely in plastic wrap. Place the halves, cut side down on a microwave safe plate. Heat on high for about 7 minutes per pound or until tender. Spoon out the pulp and use in recipes or further process to create a purée.

Yield: A 5-pound pumpkin will yield about 4½ cups of mashed, cooked pumpkin. As comparison, figure one 15- to 16-ounce can yields about 2 cups of mashed pumpkin.

Penne in Pumpkin Vodka Sauce

Makes 6 Servings | Recipe by Robin Asbell from Real Food (Check out more veggie-packed pasta recipes in the current fall issue of Real Food available at Lunds & Byerlys stores.) 

Tomato-vodka sauce is even better when you add creamy pumpkin to the mix and a hint of rosemary is simmered in. Save a step by cooking cauliflower with the pasta in the pot. This can be a satisfying vegetarian dish, or you can add the optional shrimp for you or your seafood-loving friends.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
½ cup tomato paste
½ cup vodka
¾ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
16 ounces penne pasta
3 cups cauliflower florets
1 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined (optional)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil for searing shrimp
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped

  1. Set a large pot of salted water over high heat and bring to a boil for cooking the pasta.
  2. In a large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add onion and stir to coat, and raise heat to bring to a sizzle. Reduce heat to medium-low and stir occasionally until clear and soft, about 10 minutes. Add the rosemary, pumpkin, tomato paste, and vodka and stir to mix.
  3. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and reduce to keep the sauce at a low simmer for about 5 minutes. Stir in the cream and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Once the water is boiling, cook the pasta according to package directions, adding the cauliflower for the last 3 minutes. Drain well.
  5. Return the pasta and cauliflower to the pot and pour the sauce over them. If adding shrimp, wash the sauté pan and place it over medium-high heat, drizzle with olive oil, and add the shrimp to the hot pan. Sear shrimp for about 2 minutes per side, until pink and cooked through. Serve pasta topped with seared shrimp (if using) and parsley.

Nutrition (per serving):
• Without shrimp: Calories: 530, Fat: 16g (Sat: 10 g), Cholesterol: 45 mg, Sodium: 430 mg, Carb: 72g, Fiber: 8g, Sugar: 10g, Protein: 14g
• With shrimp: Calories: 580, Fat: 17g (Sat: 10 g), Cholesterol: 140 mg, Sodium: 860 mg, Carb: 73g, Fiber: 8g, Sugar: 10g, Protein: 24g

Toasting Pumpkin Seeds

Don’t throw those seeds out after carving the “guts” out of your Halloween pumpkin—they are delicious roasted.

½ cup pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon melted butter or oil (olive or vegetable)
½ teaspoon seasoning of your choice (see Cook’s Note)

  1. Clean the seeds by separating them from the stringy membrane of freshly carved pumpkin. Rinse the seeds in a colander until they are free of any membrane matter. Dry with paper towels.
  2. Place cleaned and dried seeds in a bowl and toss with butter or oil and seasonings of choice.
  3. Heat oven to 250°F.
    4. Spread pumpkin seeds in a single layer on baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes, until they are golden brown. Store baked pumpkin seeds in an airtight container. To serve, it’s best to remove the white hull.

Cook’s Note: Salt is a classic and tasty choice but you can also experiment with garlic powder, curry mix, cayenne pepper, seasoning salt, a Cajun seasoning blend, cinnamon, or other spices. Adjust the amount to your liking.

Pumpkin Muffins with Pecan Praline Topping

Photography Terry Brennan, Food Styling Lara Miklasevics

Hungry for More?

Check out these pumpkin-y recipes for sweat treats and pumpkin’s savory side.

Pumpkin Muffins with Pecan Praline Topping
Celebrate the flavors of fall in a sweet muffin that’s crowned with a taste of New Orleans pralines.

Pumpkin Sheet Cake with Broiled Pecan Topping Recipe

Try this easy-to-make cake, and stick around for more deliciously pumpkin-y recipes

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cake
This moist, dark-golden pumpkin cake is studded with chocolate chips and topped off with a drizzle of melted chips. What’s not to like?

Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust
Can’t decide between pumpkin pie and luscious cheesecake for a festive dessert? Here’s your answer.

Savory Pumpkin Soup with Gruyère Toasts
A comforting and good-for-you seasonal soup

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.