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Pumpkin Hacks: A Survival Guide to Fall Living



This is a guide for busy people who are unfamiliar with pumpkins, but want some tips on how to get more pumpkin-y for the fall season.

In this instructable I will cover: Pumpkin Carving, Pumpkin Cooking, Pumpkin Beer, and Pumpkin Growing. 

(I take no credit for the pictures or the recipes in this guide)

Step 1: Pumpkin Carving 101

1. How to pick the best pumpkin:
Tip: Before you pick one out, have a design in mind to pick the right shape that will bring it to life.
Tip. Don’t pick a short one because the flame of your candle will burn the roof of the pumpkin.
Tip. Sit it up and see how stable it’s base is.
Tip. Pick one with a long stem, so your lid will open more easily.
Tip: Sometimes pumpkins with flat backs are not so bad. You can carve a breathing hole in the back of the pumpkin, so the fire in the candle can get oxygen. Sometimes there is not enough oxygen at the bottom of a pumpkin to sustain a large flame, so you need one of these little holes. 
Tip: Knock on it. If it sounds hollow, it is more ripe and will be easier to carve. 
Tip: Look for lightest pumpkins in the size group. If it is lighter, less gunk is on the inside and the walls might be thinner. 
Tip: Don't get the pumpkins with deep ribs (a pumpkin rib is the name for the vertical stripes). They are generally thicker on the inside and harder to draw on. 

2. Design:
     There are a lot of great ideas out there for lazy pumpkin carvers who want unique pumpkins. Props are generally great, lazy additions: you may want to use fake teeth, a wig, Mr. Potato head pieces, or fake rats/spiders to spice things up. I generally recommend you don’t buy a design booklet for yourself or for your children. Every year that I have ever tried to use one of those dot-by-dot books, I always screw up one tiny part of it and the whole picture falls apart! UHG! Why would you want to stifle their imagination anyways? Let you kids come up with their own original designs- no matter how ugly- that's the fun. Plus, it cuts out the headache. Remember, there is nothing wrong with a traditional jack-o-lantern face! Draw your design with a red permanent marker, not a black one. The red is less obnoxious if you screw up and the red becomes almost invisible at night. 

Tip: Child created design: I have babysat on Halloween before, it’s always soo fun to carve pumpkins, but don’t let the kids go overboard in their design. For the young ones, guide their hand while they are drawing to make the shapes more shape like. The red permanent marker leaves less obnoxious lines, but is bright enough to see. I let young children poke their design with the poker after they have drawn it, but I do most of the cutting.
Tip: For really small kiddos, you can let them decorate their pumpkins with Mr. Potato head pieces instead of carving. Pierce 3 holes in the pumpkin for the eyes, the nose, and the mouth.  IF the pumpkin carving goes horribly wrong, looks like a blob, and the child is upset, you could tell them to use the Mr. Potato head pieces on the backside to make a face and save the day.

3. Pumpkin Carving Things needed: Candle, match, dark clothes, one of those pumpkin cutting kits with the small serrated knife (maybe a steak knife and an x-acto knife for yourself), red permanent marker, ice cream scooper or really good spoon, fork, salt, trash bag, bowl for gunk, towels, and a bowl of water.

Tip: Give yourself plenty of time! The clean up, cutting, designing, and candle lighting process always takes longer than you think! Don’t do this right before you are about to go trick or treating or you will be stressed out and rushing your kids.
Tip: Cut trash bag to make a tarp sheet, and lay it on the floor where you want to do the cutting.
Tip: Wear dark clothes, the pumpkin will stain your whites.
Tip: Put a towel on your lap and the children’s laps. They can wipe their hands on the towel when things get too sticky.
Tip: Cut the lid with one notch to find the right placing. No need for zigzags- they take too much time and are too difficult to get back on. Cut in a circle with a slanted angle to support the lid. If you cut straight down, it will just fall right through. 
Tip: Scoop the pumpkin with an ice cream scooper or a good spoon. Then go over it with a fork to get all of the stringy bits. I like to really peel off the wall of the inside so it is thinner for cutting.
Tip:  Rub salt on the inside to preserve it. This cuts down on mold.
Tip: Use a water bowl to wet your hands and clean off the gunk. Your kids will keep wanting to wash their hands and get up from the pumpkin cutting station. When they get up and run to the bathroom, they are going to get pumpkin all over the handles of the sink. Rinse your hands and dry them on your lap towel.
Tip: If you are not letting your child do the cutting, then don’t use those flimsy knifes. Use a steak knife for the big cutting jobs, like the lid. Use that wonderful, thin, tiny, serrated knife for the details.
Tip: Cut a small hole in the low back area for ventilation and to more easily light the candle. The fire on the wick of the candle will burn brighter when it has more access to fresh oxygen. 
Tip: You might want to cut a hole in the roof of the lid to make way for the smoke.
Tip: If a pumpkin tooth falls off while your child is cutting, insert it back in with a toothpick. 

Step 2: Pumpkin Cooking

How to cook with pumpkin:

Pumpkin Bread:
From my experience this is the best, easiest pumpkin bread recipe: http://www.americastestkitchen.com/recipes/detail.php?docid=37160
(it has videos and a step by step guide with pictures)
***Even though it is called pumpkin bread, I would not bake it as recommended. Dripping with sweat as you lean over the hot oven, you will be poking that stupid piece of bread with toothpicks for hours as you wait for the middle to set. Here is my hack: Make pumpkin muffins instead by scooping them into baking cups (cupcake liners) and into a muffin pan. Seriously, after all of your hard work, you do not want to slice open that fresh, hot pumpkin bread to find a soggy or dripping interior. Plus muffins are so much more convenient to pack into your lunch or send off with your kids.

Cooking Pumpkin in a savory dish: Treat pumpkin like a very mild squash. 1 small pumpkin can sustain a family for at least a week. Because too much pumpkin can overpower any meal, you can use the unused pumpkin as a side veggie for many dinners in a row. 
Use Pumpkin as a side dish or additional veggie. Always peel off the skin with a vegetable peeler:
1. Cut up in small cubes, it goes great with zucchini and yellow onion.
2. You can cut it up into small pieces, stir-fry it, and add it to spaghetti.
3. You can boil the pieces and mash them with butter and a little bit of spices to make a mashed pumpkin side.
4. You can cut the pumpkin into long thin strips, keep the skin on (place them down on the pan with skin down and pulp up ,cover them with butter and salt, and broil them until they are roasted.
 
My favorite, easy pumpkin soup recipe: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Pumpkin-Soup (it has videos and a step by step guide with pictures)
***If you don’t feel like hassling with the bread crumbs, don’t. They were good, but I don’t know if I would spend all of that time doing it again. You could probably just make some quick cinnamon toast (buttered toast plus cinnamon sugar sprinkled on it) and dip it in as you eat it. 


Pumpkin seeds:
1. Separate from goop.
2. Rinse them in a colander.
3. Spread them on a paper towel.
4. Let dry.
5. When they are dry, put some oil in a frypan and heat it up.
6. Throw them in the fry pan and salt them.
7. Stir until they pop a little bit, make a high pitched screaming noise, and are lightly brown.
8. Stir them quickly so they don't burn!
9. Serve them warm- I eat the whole shell, but some people eat them like a sunflower seed (spitting out shell).
**Side note: any squash seed can be fried like a pumpkin seed and eaten. 

For those with a Trader Joes, I strongly recommend these pumpkin products:
1. Pumpkin Ravioli: Very good, but its flavor is a little overwhelming. It definitely hits the spot if you are craving pumpkin, but you might want to cook another kind of ravioli with it to get a little variety in your dish.  I like to shred a good white cheddar cheese over it and then add bacon bits! MMMM
2. Pumpkin Butter Spread: This stuff is amazing for everything. I even put a scoop in my coffee for a pretend pumpkin spice latte. If you like guavas, this is also good slathered on them- oddly enough. 
3. Their Pumpkin Spice Granola- so good with milk or yogurt!

Making a pumpkin pie: How do you pick out the sweetest pumpkin? There are no sweet pumpkins! If you have ever tasted the pumpkin puree in a can of pumpkin, you will notice it will be slightly sweet, even though the ingredients do not list sugar or sweeteners. Why is canned pumpkin so sweet when homemade pumpkin puree is so bland? That is because "canned pumpkin" is really made out of butternut squash, Hubbard squash, and Boston Marrow squash. All of these squashes are tastier than pumpkin because they are less stringy and richer in sweetness and color. From personal experience, I do not recommend you try to make your own pumpkin pie filling from scratch. People have the impression that homemade is always better, but in this case it is not. Save the huge mess: one little pumpkin can have a grenade effect in a small kitchen. A pumpkin pie truly from scratch will require cutting, peeling, steaming, mashing, pureeing, and then finally baking it into a pie. 1 from-scratch pumpkin pie= moping the floor, cleaning pumpkin splatter off of everything in the kitchen, using every machine and utensil in your artillery, and doing several loads of dishes!  Just buy a good-ol’ Marie Callendar’s Pumpkin Pie from Marie Callendars (not the frozen box one). Henry’s(Sprouts) Whole Foods store also sells a great organic pumpkin pie: it is healthier, but not better than Marie Calendars!

Step 3: Pumpkin Beer

(This section is not for those under 21 years old!!)

Okay, I’m not going to pretend to be a beer snob- I know nothing of beer and I consider ale and beer to be the same thing. There are a lot of pumpkin beers out there, and I have tried many, but I am usually unsatisfied. Most of them don’t even have a noticeable pumpkin flavor. All I want is the beer version of a pumpkin pie: sweet, flavorful, and full of spices. I haven’t really found the perfect pumpkin beer or ale, but here is my suggestion:

Smashed Pumpkins: This one definitely has the kind of sweetish, strong pumpkin flavor you might be craving. It’s a little overwhelming, but when you take a sip of this beer, there will be no doubt in your mind that it is a pumpkin beer. 

Samuel Adams Harvest Pumpkin Beer (and whole harvest selection): My friend brought these to a party, and I didn't have a high expectation for its flavor. I tried Shocktop’s Pumpkin Wheat and Harvest Moon's Pumpkin Spice, and they were- meh- okay, kinda plain- I couldn't taste the pumpkin. Samuel Adam’s pumpkin beer is mild too, but it has an all around better taste than a lot of pumpkin beers I have tried. Seriously, there is just something good about the whole harvest pack, but I don’t know what it is. I guess what is good about this beer is that it does not have an overwhelming flavor, but it still hits the spot.

One of them is too strong, the other is a little too mild. Who knows, maybe it would be best to mix the two!

Side note: If you live in Orange County, and you want a great fall beer experience, I really suggest you go to the Brury, located at: 715 Dunn Way, Placentia, CA.
At most Total Wines/ Bevmos they sell their autumn maple (a dark, sweet, maple flavor beer)- which is really good and only 7 dollars for a whole, wine-sized bottle! At the Brury, a 4 oz-10oz glass can be $7, so this is an awesome deal. They have no pumpkin beer unfortunately, but I really recommend the Or Xata (sweet, cinnamon, vanilla. Very nice and light- good for the non-hardcore beer drinker) or the mélange/Bruis which is a darker, richer, sweeter, barrel aged version of the Autumn Maple.

***If you have a beer recommendation, please add it in the comments! I am always on the search for the perfect pumpkin beer!***

Step 4: Pumpkin Growing

Now that you have all of those left over seeds, dry them and save some in a zip lock bag for spring or summer to grow your own pumpkin.

Spring is the best time to grow pumpkins, but the pumpkin matures too early. Summer is a little too hot, but the pumpkin will ripen by October. 

*Place a handful of seeds in a wet paper towel, fold the paper towel, and place it in a plastic ziplock bag. Don’t seal the bag all of the way.  Don’t put too many seeds in or it the whole batch will mold. Put the almost sealed ziplock bag with the seeds in a warm place, possibly near a window or on a shelf. In a week, they should have little white roots shooting from one end.

*Prepare the soil while you wait for the seeds to sprout.  Loosen up your clay soil with garden soil purchased at home depot. Make the mix 50/50. Too much garden soil will make a weak plant. If you are growing it out of a pot, I suggest you mix some normal clay dirt into the potting soil. Clay holds in water, and pumpkins do not like dry soil. Potting soil dries our very quickly, and is not as good for root growth because the roots get too spoiled and will grow longer and flimsier. Pick an area with full sun and plenty of room for the vine to grow. Preferably the vine will grow on mulch in a garden, but if you have a concrete back yard it will be okay so long as the concrete does not get too hot.

*Snails love to eat pumpkins. Get some snail bait that is safe for fruits and vegetables before those monsters ruin everything.  Sprinkle it around the dirt. 

*Plant 3 seeds about 1 inch a part and 1 inch deep.

*Cover the soil with a layer of mulch (even if it’s in a pot). This will keep the top soil moister.

*Let the three seeds grow into pumpkin sprouts. When they get about 4 inches tall, you need to cut the stems of the two weaker sprouts to kill them. Only one pumpkin can survive of the three, and you choose the strongest, healthiest one.

*Don’t get water on the leaves. Be careful to water only the soil. The leaves will rot and mold if they get too much moisture on them.

*As your pumpkin grows, it will grow yellow flowers. Those will turn into pumpkins. Only let your pumpkin have one or two pumpkins, and wean off the rest. The fewer the pumpkin, the larger they will grow. Make sure the pumpkin fruit is shaded by the leaves of the pumpkin or by a nearby plant. They stop growing when they get too much sun. Keep them in the shade until they are large and then let them see the sunlight, so they can ripen.

*Once there are tiny pumpkins, fertilize the plant lightly every one or two weeks. Too much fertilizer will kill them, even though a lot of people believe it is impossible to over fertilize a pumpkin. Mine grew just fine without any fertilizer, but the fruit was very watery and plain tasting. 

*Oh no! My leaves are turning white and are dying! What should I do???? Nothing. This happens naturally at the end of a Pumpkin’s life. If this happens before the pumpkin fruits, then you have a problem. Lightly mist the pumpkin leaves (even the healthy ones) with this mix: 1 quart water, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 tablespoons oil, and a squirt of soap (I use less baking soda because it burns the leaves).  Water the pumpkin with a quart of water mixed with a tablespoon of milk. Most likely, the pumpkin leaves are sick because they are too wet on a daily basis. Just do this spray once a month if mold becomes a problem. Snails, white flies, and aphids hate this mixture too, so use it to solve the problem. White flies require this spray every week under the leaves where they build their nests. The black mildew that accompanies white flies helps them grow and kills your plant, so spray this black stuff with the mixture to loosen it off your pumpkin leaf. Wash the black off with water, and then reapply the mist. 

*When your pumpkin is orange and it’s vine/stump is dried up and brown, it is ripe.

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