PUMPKINS AND squash go hand in hand with the Algarve sunshine. They need a little tender care in the early days, lots of water if the weather is hot and plenty of sunshine. Pumpkins are traditionally sown in the spring to grow and ripen through the hot summer months. So why, you might ask yourself, am I rattling on about pumpkins just as summer is drawing to a close?
Two reasons – firstly, you can buy them from the market now to use in the delicious recipes below (remember to keep the seeds) and, secondly, if you are adventurous enough, have a go at an autumn sowing. The huge oval shaped pumpkins and the butternuts, if established while the weather is still hot, can do very well and bear fruit up until Christmas. They will not be as productive as a crop sown in spring, but will be much less demanding in terms of watering. An inexpensive way of getting seeds is to ask for some from the vendors selling pumpkins at your local greengrocers. Although these seeds invariably germinate, the fruit they produce may bear no relation to the pumpkin they came from – that‘s half the fun of it!
To sow in August choose an open site that receives maximum sunshine in winter. Be aware that the plants can grow absolutely huge – some varieties have a spread of 10 metres or more.
• Dig in lots of well rotted manure or add plenty of fertiliser.
• Sow about three seeds, 5cm deep, 5cm apart. Thin to one seedling after germination.
• Pumpkin plants need lots of space, so keep plants at least 2m apart.
• Keep well watered until the autumn rains take over.
• Plants produce male and female flowers, the latter have a small pumpkin at the base of the flower. There are less pollinating insects about in the winter, so it is advisable to give the plant a helping hand. Snap off a male flower, pull the petals back and thrust it meaningfully into the female flower – this usually does the trick!
• When the pumpkins begin growing, position them so that they don’t sit on damp soil – an old floor tile will do.
The pumpkins are ready for harvesting when they stop swelling and stop changing colour. Cut the stem from the main vine, leaving 5cm or so of stalk. If the weather has been sunny enough to harden the skins, the pumpkins can store for three months or longer.
Pumpkins make extremely tasty and appetising soups that freeze well.
• Cut the tough skin off the pumpkin and chop enough flesh to fill a large saucepan.
• Chop one or two onions, put in a pan and cook slowly in olive oil until the onions are translucent.
• Now add the pumpkin, one or two chicken stock cubes and fill the pan to about three-quarters full with water.
• Bring to the boil, then simmer until the pumpkin is soft and mushy.
• Use a hand blender to reduce the whole mixture to creamy soup.
• Add salt and black pepper to taste.
There are a number of variations to this soup. You could add a little cream at the blending stage to give it a richer creamy taste. Replacing half the water with milk has a similar effect. Another version is to bake the pumpkins first until they begin to caramelise, then add to milk and cook as before. This version has a beautiful roasted flavour.
All pumpkins roast well, but butternut has the best flavour. When roasted they taste quite sweet, so if you miss having parsnips with a roast dinner, pumpkins make a good alternative.
• Peel and cut the pumpkins into smallish pieces, coat in olive oil and sprinkle on a little salt and lots of black pepper.
• Roast in a very hot oven until the pumpkin begins to crisp – about 45 minutes.
• If you take them out too early they will still be mushy inside, so have a taste before you serve.
• If anyone can help with more information on organic supplies please send me details. If you have any gardening nightmares or successes to share, email me at [email protected]. Write Virtual Vegetables in the subject column, so that the message isn’t mistaken for spam and binned!