For Better Living: A Versatile and Delicious Vegetable

By: Sandra Cain - Bladen County Cooperative Extension

Fall leaves, corn stalks, mums, and pumpkins are signs of the season. Pumpkins are most often associated with Halloween and jack-o-lanterns.

Cooked pumpkin is a nutritious and delicious food that needs to make its way to the dinner table – not just used for decorative purposes.

Pumpkins are a perfect food for fall meals, providing healthy amounts of vitamin A and dietary fiber. Try pumpkin in a new way like soup or a vegetable side dish, as well as, the traditional bread, muffins, pancakes, or pie.

Traditionally jack-o-lanterns are carved from large, thin-walled pumpkins which make them easy to carve. These types of pumpkins do not store as well as the thicker-fleshed pie pumpkins. Large “jack-o-lantern” pumpkins can be eaten, but they are not as sweet and flavorful as the smaller, heavier pie pumpkins.

Pumpkins are a member of the squash family and pumpkin can easily be substituted for winter squash or sweet potatoes in most recipes. The pumpkin’s origin has been traced to Central America and is still used there as a vegetable in side dishes and casseroles.

Pumpkin is a source of Vitamin A, fiber, potassium, Vitamin C, iron, and the phytochemical family of carotenoids, particularly lutein which has been shown to lower the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. When you make your own pumpkin puree, it usually is not as dense as canned puree and has fewer calories (about 50 calories for a cup of homemade pumpkin puree). The canned puree has about 85 calories per cup as it has been cooked longer to reduce moisture.

Regardless of whether you make your own puree or buy it ready to use, it has practically no fat. Watch out that you don’t pick up a can of pumpkin pie filling by mistake. This product has added sugar and spices and is less versatile in making recipes that call for plain pumpkin puree.

One cup of cooked, pureed pumpkin, drained without salt, has 49 calories, 2 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrate, 3 grams of dietary fiber, 564 mg potassium, 12 mg Vitamin C, and 2650 IU Vitamin A.

When selecting pumpkins for cooking, choose relatively small ones that feel hard, have no soft spots or cracks and seem heavy in relation to their size. Store them in a cool place until you are ready to use them.

If your recipe calls for pureed pumpkin, one of the easiest ways to prepare it, other than opening up a can, is to cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp, and cook the halves with the cut-side facing down in a conventional or microwave oven until the pulp is tender. Small pumpkins can even be microwaved whole if they are pierced with a few small holes to allow the steam to escape.

After microwaving, let pumpkins stand for five minutes before pureeing or serving to allow heat within the pumpkin to equalize. After baking in the oven or microwave, let the pumpkin cool until it can be handled. Use a spoon to scoop the cooked flesh from the outer rind. Mash the cooked pumpkin or place it in a food mill, food processor, or blender to make the puree.

Pumpkin puree can be seasoned with a little nutmeg, maple syrup, or honey and served as a vegetable. Unseasoned puree can be used to make pumpkin bread, muffins, pie, cookies, soups, or other recipes. Extra pumpkin puree can be frozen. Portion the amount called for in a recipe into a freezer container. Leave head space, label, and freeze.

Pumpkins also can be baked and used as the cooking vessel! Wash small, whole pumpkins, cut a cover for the “pumpkin pot” by cutting a three to four-inch circle from the top. Keep the stem intact to use as a handle.

Remove the seeds and fibers. (Save seeds, wash, and toast in oven 20 minutes at 350 degrees F.)

The pumpkin can be filled with other vegetables and chunks of meat or poultry, seasoned, and baked for a delicious stew. The pumpkin itself can be eaten as part of stew. To be on the safe side, place the filled pumpkin in a baking dish or pan to catch any boil-overs or leaks.

Here are some other ideas for serving pumpkin:

—Use pumpkin in place of mashed potatoes in a shepherd’s pie.

—Baked pumpkin halves are attractive and tasty when stuffed with meat, rice, or vegetables mixtures.

—And, if you’re tired of standard vegetable fare, try sautéing or stir-frying strips of fresh pumpkin.

—Chunks of pumpkin are a colorful addition to chili.

—Make a dip for baked tortilla chips by adding minced chipotle peppers (or peppers of your choice), lime juice, cumin, and cilantro to pumpkin puree.

—Blend pumpkin puree with low-fat ricotta or cottage cheese and use as a filling for manicotti or lasagna.

Source: Vermont Cooperative Extension

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

2 cups pumpkin seeds

5 teaspoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon garlic powder

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Toss pumpkin seeds with butter and Worcestershire sauce. Combine the sugar, salt, garlic powder and cayenne. Sprinkle over seeds and toss to coat. Line a baking pan with foil and spray with foil with nonstick spray. Spread seeds in pan. Bake at 250 degrees for 45 – 60 minutes or until are dry and lightly browned, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool completely. Store in airtight container.

Pumpkin Spice Spread

1 package (8 ounces) fat-free cream cheese

½ cup canned pumpkin

Sugar substitute equal to ½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon maple flavoring

½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 carton (8 ounces) reduced-fat whipped topping

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, pumpkin and sugar substitute. Mix well. Beat in the cinnamon, vanilla, maple flavoring, pumpkin pie spice and nutmeg. Fold in whipped topping. Refrigerate until serving. Serve with ginger snaps, quick breads or bagels.

Sandra Cain

Bladen County Cooperative Extension