America loves pumpkin. Or rather, we love the idea of pumpkin. It’s no secret that the majority of the products that have sprouted out of the unyielding pumpkin spice craze (thanks, Starbucks) have little to no pumpkin in them. Yet that doesn’t stop most of us from giving in anyway. We buy that latte, that beer and that yogurt, hoping that we get more out of them than an overwhelming mouthful of spice and a feeling of buyer’s remorse.
But, it gets worse. The pumpkin products that contain no pumpkin, just an interpretation of the flavor of pumpkin pie, often don’t contain any real spices either. They’re typically full of imitation flavoring. Think about that for a second. We’re buying foods and products (now even pet shampoo) packaged with images of pumpkins and cinnamon sticks that contain none of the things that convinced us to buy them in the first place. As a gardener and a cook, this all drives me nuts.
But then, pumpkin really hit a new low a couple of years ago when it was going around on the internet that canned pumpkin purée, the stuff that we were led to believe was one hundred percent pure pumpkin, may not be what we thought it was either. To clarify, I’m talking about the flesh of pumpkins grown out of the soil in the ground. That when ripe, is harvested, cooked, mashed and packaged for sale. In other words, actually what it displays on the side of the package. Yet the theory was that this too was a lie.
The claim was that most pumpkin purée was a blend of other winter squashes. Luckily, that claim was mostly false. While no, pumpkin purée is not made from the jack-o-lantern kind of pumpkin you envision when you think of pumpkins, it is still from a pumpkin of another variety. But it still felt like a slap in the face on our unattainable quest for pumpkin.
Here we are, collectively as a country, obsessed with the idea of pumpkin and buying all of this pumpkin-themed junk. And just to clarify, I too fall into the trap. Who do you think bought the latte, beer, and yogurt I mentioned?
Why do we do this every fall? Do these things actually taste that good? I don’t know. I think it’s partly the sugar we love and partly the false sense of comfort these products provide. Pumpkins are only around part of the year, including two major holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving. We have happy memories surrounding these times. Personally, pumpkins remind me of getting together with friends and family, eating good food, pumpkin carving, dressing up in costumes and going to parties, pie, going to a farm or orchard to pick pumpkins, laughing at bad scary movies and perhaps most broad and common of them all — the season of fall.
I think when we buy all this pumpkin stuff we’re trying to capture what I would argue is the most enjoyable and fleeting season of the year. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I can think of much worse going on in the world today.
Now that I’ve bored you with my pumpkin philosophy, it’s time to cook.
Always the contrarian, I look for pumpkin dishes without all the spice and sugar. This pasta, adapted from a recipe by Rachel Ray I tried years ago, is one of my fall and pumpkin favorites. It has a hint of the familiar spices, but also plenty of sage and sausage for a true comfort and a depth of flavor those pumpkin products fail to achieve. It’s quick enough for a weeknight and impressive enough for dinner with friends.
Although I grew a few pumpkins in the garden this year, I do have to admit that I rely on and prefer the puree in stores. The consistency and flavor are always the same. Just make sure to buy the purée and not pie filling, which comes already spiced.
Pumpkin pasta with sage and sausage
12 ounces penne or elbow pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound sweet Italian sausage (without casings)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
About 10 fresh sage leaves, plus more for serving
1 cup dry white wine
1 ½ cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 box or can of pumpkin purée, about 2 cups
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup half and half
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Fill a large pot with water and several pinches of kosher salt. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Start cooking while you wait. When the water boils, add in your pasta and cook until al dente. Then drain and set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and the sausage and use a wooden spoon to break up the sausage into small pieces. Allow cooking until well browned, then transfer the sausage to a paper towel-lined plate.
Return the skillet to the heat with the remaining olive oil. Toss in the garlic, ginger, and onion. Sauté until the onion has softened, about 5 minutes. Pour in the wine and let simmer until reduced in half. Stir in the bay leaf, sage, broth, pumpkin, salt, and pepper. Bring to a simmer.
Return the sausage back to the skillet, along with the half and half, cinnamon, nutmeg, and Parmesan. Cook for a few minutes to allow the flavors to meld. Taste and adjust any of the seasonings to your liking. Then stir in the pasta and toss to coat in the sauce.
Serve with additional cheese and chopped sage leaves.