Popular pumpkins provide plenty of healthy phytochemicals
October’s most famous squash is also its most versatile. Pumpkins lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods. It is possible to serve pumpkins as a side dish, soup, cake, muffin, bread, custard and even pie. Pumpkin can also be substituted for winter squash or sweet potatoes in recipes, and even the seeds can be toasted for healthy snacks.
“Whether you are using this fruit disguised as a vegetable to decorate for fall or preparing it for consumption, the possible uses of pumpkin are endless,” says Dr. Pam Duitsman, a nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension. “The color of the pumpkin offers a clue to its great nutritional value as an excellent source of carotenoids, including beta-carotene that the body converts into vitamin A,” said Duitsman.
A good supply of these disease preventing compounds are in as little as a half cup of cooked pumpkin, which contains only about 24 calories. This same amount supplies over 100 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A, a good amount of vitamin C, fiber, and several health beneficial phytochemicals.
Storage and selection
“To be preserved, pumpkins don’t have to be stored in a refrigerator so that is one other aspect that makes them so versatile,” said Duitsman.
Whole pumpkins (not cut and free of bruises) can last two months if stored in a dry, cool and airy location where they won’t freeze or be exposed to insects or rodents.
Duitsman says to let the use of the pumpkin determine the selection. To make a jack-o-lantern, select a large, well-shaped pumpkin. Pumpkins that are best for cooking will be small and heavy for their size, ranging from about five to seven pounds.
“Pumpkins for cooking will often be marketed as pie pumpkins and will contain more pulp than the larger jack-o-lantern varieties. Choose a pumpkin that has at least a one inch stem firmly attached, and that is free from soft spots or damage. It should feel firm and have a consistent color,” said Duitsman.
Preparation and cooking
Before using for food preparation, rinse and scrub the pumpkin clean. Cut open the pumpkin before cooking and remove the seeds and stringy material. Go ahead and save the seeds for roasting. Then cut the flesh of the pumpkin into wedges or halves.
“Once you cut the pumpkin open, you must cook it right away,” said Duitsman.
To boil: place the wedges or halves in a large pot with enough water to cover the pumpkin. Bring the water to a boil, cover, reduce heat and let simmer. Cook until you can pierce flesh easily with a fork. Drain and let cool. Peel the flesh from the skin.
Oven baking: place the pumpkin halves on a baking sheet and bake at 350 F for about 1 to 1.5 hours, or until flesh is tender when pierced with a fork. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh.
The flesh of the cooked pumpkin can be mashed or pureed with a food processor or blender. A five pound pumpkin will yield about four cups of mashed, cooked pumpkin. Chill cooked pumpkin immediately.
Use cooked pumpkin within 36 hours or freeze at 0 degrees F for up to one year. Use rigid plastic containers leaving ½ inch headspace for expansion, or use freezer bags. Package in amounts that you will use for a recipe such as two cups for a pumpkin pie. Use puree in recipes or substitute in the same amount in any recipe calling for solid pack canned pumpkin.
To roast the seeds: Just wash the seeds in warm water, and spread them out to dry. Toss in a little oil or spray a shallow baking sheet with oil and spread the seeds in a single layer. Bake them at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15-20 minutes, occasionally stirring. Salt if desired, cool and store.
“Roasted pumpkin seeds make a terrific energy snack. They are a great source of protein, minerals, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids. Store roasted seeds in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If they are going to be kept longer than 10 to 14 days, place them in the freezer,” said Duitsman.
Recipe for Pumpkin Pancakes
- 1/2 cup regular, uncooked oats
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup pureed pumpkin
- 1/3 cup low-fat or skim milk
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons wheat germ
- 1 tablespoon sugar
Combine oats and buttermilk and let stand for 15 minutes to soften. Mix eggs, oil, pumpkin, and milk and blend well. Combine dry ingredients and mix with the egg mixture. Add oats and buttermilk and blend until batter is fairly smooth. Add extra milk if batter is too thick. Bake on lightly greased griddle. Makes four servings.