Fall can be a loathsome season. It’s this terrible limbo between blistering-hot days and fog-filled evenings, when down vests and flannel jackets appear while dying foliage swings in the breeze, only to snap off and plummet to its death. Playing “Is That An Animal Or A Leaf?” while driving impaired with seasonal allergies is no fun either. While winter is coming, there is no more “Game of Thrones” to look forward to.

In autumn, glasses of rosé give way to travel mugs and purses full of pumpkin spice. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice and cloves, commonly known as “pumpkin spice” has been cast as an early-aughts girl group that we just can’t seem to shake. Every fall the cadre of spiced products grows longer and larger. Coffee, granola bars, cereal, even dog food and face masks have been infected by the pulverized dust of tree bark — there is nothing left uncovered by the spice blend’s blanket of seasonality.

The call for pumpkin spice that begins in September really is basic — in most cases, actual pumpkin isn’t even present! We’ve come to a point where we have evolved past basic and it’s high time to elevate and bring forth the pumpkin to a meteoric rise.

The distinction between pumpkin and squash is one that is a little muddy, not unlike the color of the subject itself. The most readily available source of pumpkin is via can. According to the USDA’s guidelines for the indigenous gourd, it must be “prepared from clean, sound, properly matured, golden-fleshed, firm-shelled, sweet varieties of either pumpkins and squashes by washing, stemming, cutting, steaming, and reducing to a pulp.” That vague descriptor means canned varieties could have a blend of winter squash that has no actual pumpkin in it.

A can of lies.

In the spirit of joining them instead of beating them, I hold an annual pumpkin-carving party where guests bring whole pumpkins and everything else is supplied: carving tools, paint, a drill for the adventurous, roasted pumpkins seeds, pumpkin cream-cheese-swirl brownies, popped popcorn and pumpkin chili.

Pumpkin is a squash not unlike the butternut, delicata, acorn or kabocha varieties. And while pumpkins are a visible part of autumn, they don’t actually taste good. Pumpkins are watery and very stringy; turning them into a delectable dish takes more work than other winter squashes.

Enter my miso pumpkin chili

The deep, complex and robust flavor of the fermented bean paste is brightened with acid from tomatoes while the otherwise bland pumpkin soaks up flavor from the broth and addition of Parmesan cheese to make this chili a staple all season. Fresh pumpkin is important in the recipe because, as we’ve established, canned pumpkin is not what it seems.

To prepare it, cut the pumpkin in half, remove the seeds (set aside for roasting) and roast the halves at 450 degrees for about 15 minutes. Alternatively, microwave each half, cut-side up, for 14 minutes each. When cool enough to handle, peel the pumpkin or shave off the skin with a sharp knife and cut into one-inch pieces.

Be sure to use beef stock or add toasted sheets of nori to vegetable stock to round out the flavors and add a little smokiness. Serve with cornbread slathered with butter and you’ll be dipping a culinary toe into the rapidly chilling waters of fall.

If chili isn’t your idea of a good time, try this recipe for pumpkin grits which is covered with a spicy pepper and sausage ragout. 

Miso Pumpkin Chili 

Serves 6 

  • 1/2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil 
  • 1 cup onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 1 Tbsp white or red miso paste 
  • 1 Tbsp ancho chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp oregano, dried 
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon, ground 
  • 2 cups TVP (textured vegetable protein) OR 1 lb ground lean beef or turkey 
  • 1 14.5 oz tomatoes, diced OR 2 cups red tomato, chopped (reserve juices) 
  • 2 cups fresh pumpkin, diced (preparation notes above)
  • 32 oz. cup low sodium stock or broth 
  • 8 oz mushrooms (crimini), sliced 
  • 1 Tbsp apple cider vinegar 
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar 
  • Optional garnish: ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion, garlic, miso paste, chili powder, oregano and cinnamon. Cook until fragrant. Add TVP or beef, tomatoes with juice, pumpkin, broth, mushrooms, vinegar and brown sugar. If you’re using beef, break it up with a wooden spoon. Bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low. Cover; stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Serve garnished with Parmesan cheese.

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