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Can you think of another month more closely allied with a vegetable than October? November is a close second for pumpkin pie, but throughout October, pre-schoolers, grandparents and generations in between revel in finding just the right pumpkin to sit on the porch.

Yet despite all the fanciful carvings and pies we associate with pumpkins, many of us don't know that pumpkins have a wide use as vegetables.

When the object of choosing a pumpkin is a spectacular jack-o'-lantern, size and shape and sometimes color are the driving forces, but that all changes when a pumpkin is destined for the kitchen. No longer is it child's play.

Now the goal for pie, soup or a roasted side dish is smooth texture and a sweet taste, qualities not usually found in a fun-oriented pumpkin patch. You'll find these instead at farmers markets and, by planning ahead, in your own garden.

If you want to grow your own October orbs, shop for seeds after the first of the year. You'll find the best selections in catalogs and on mail-order nursery websites.

But be careful. Don't be persuaded by bargain prices for generic labels such as "pie pumpkin" or "cooking pumpkin." Instead look for specific varietal names to ensure you're getting exactly the pumpkin you want. By shopping farmers' markets now, you'll find varieties to try out this autumn before selecting seeds to plant next summer.

<b>What's the difference?</b>

Specially bred small varieties deliver the delicious taste we associate with pumpkin desserts and other dishes. Their flesh is denser, less stringy — often stringless — and sweeter.

Good-sized pumpkins for carving, on the other hand, develop relatively dry, loosely packed flesh usually lacking rich flavor and unsuited for cooking. Nonetheless, moderate sized ones make an intriguing tureen for soup.

When using any pumpkin as a serving vessel, hollow out the shell and place it in a warm oven for a few minutes, but not long enough to completely roast it or the walls will collapse. When warm, it keeps hot liquids from cooling down too fast after they're poured inside.

<b>Making choices </b>

Mail-order catalogs list far more pumpkin seeds than you'll find on local seed racks. Seedsavers.org lists a wide and inviting selection; Johnnyseeds.com is an even more important go-to site, with three different comprehensive comparison charts for large, small and specialty varieties.

If you purchase an heirloom pumpkin this year, you can save the seeds to plant next June or July. Heirloom varieties produce some of the most reliable pumpkin for baking, but a few new hybrids rate nearly as high.

When you can't find names of fresh pumpkins to sample this year, look for shapes. Delectable Cinderella types are rather squat, their fanciful name suggestive of a royal coach.

Cheese types look much like a round of cheese. Both are perfect as dinner vegetables and in pies.

Rouge Vif d'Etampes Fairytale, Small Sugar, Sugar Pie, Baby Pam and tear-drop shaped Red Kuri are considered among the tastiest, though there are many others.

If you'd like to use a few unusual pumpkins for autumn d?or before harvesting the meat, look for and then save seeds of Blue Hokkaido (aka Hokkaido Stella Blue), which has a unique sweet, nutty flavor, or Casper and Lumina, both with white rind.

Several varieties of moderate size can be used for multiple purposes. Neon is suited for both cooking and carving. Triple Treat is good for cooking, carving and roasting seeds.

<b>Pumpkin tips</b>

Because pumpkins are a type of winter squash, they store well for many weeks in a cool, dry location. A flat cardboard box makes a useful container for several small ones. Separate them with a crumpled newspaper to prevent them from rolling against one another.

Keep an eye out for damage from bruising, and discard if soft areas occur. Expect skin color to become duller with time, but flesh remains viable as it continues to develop sugar.

If you have freezer space, it's handy to pack steamed or roasted and pureed pumpkin in premeasured amounts for your favorite recipes.

Pumpkin pie, cheesecake, soup and muffins are longtime favorites, but don't overlook simple cubed or mashed pumpkin as a dinner dish topped with butter and minced parsley or cilantro.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send a fax to 664-9476.