Linus was a kid way ahead of his time, at least nutritionally speaking. He must have known that the Great Pumpkin brought more than toys for good children. Vitamin A, beta-carotene, fiber, potassium, and lots of flavor—these are the real gifts the pumpkin brings.
As American as Pumpkin Pie
Long before Linus began his yearly Halloween vigil in the pumpkin patch, this orange vegetable was well-known and loved. It was one of the first foods the Native Americans introduced to the colonists and it quickly became a staple of the Thanksgiving meal. It was so loved that one early Connecticut colony delayed Thanksgiving because the molasses needed to make pumpkin pie wasn't readily available.
More Than a Pretty Pie
The pumpkin is a member of the gourd family, which also includes watermelon, cucumber, muskmelon, and squash. The pumpkin is most similar to squash and is often classified as a winter squash.
Being a brightly colored vegetable, the pumpkin is rich in many healthful nutrients, and low in fat and calories. It is especially lauded among nutritionists for its hefty doses of the antioxidants vitamin A and beta-carotene. The pumpkin's seeds, called pepitas, are a good source of unsaturated fatty acids, protein, magnesium, phosphorous, and the vitamins E, C, and A. The following table outlines pumpkin's nutrient content:
The patches are full of pumpkins from September to November. There is quite a variety to choose from, with some weighing in at well over 100 pounds. If you're just planning to carve a scary face, go for the "field" pumpkins. These have the look we all envision when we think of pumpkins—bright orange in color, medium-to-large in size, and a relatively thin stem. This type is edible, but not nearly as tasty as the others. (Never cook and eat a pumpkin that has been carved. Bacteria can easily grow in the carved flesh.)
The best picks for cooking and baking are the "pie," "sugar," "milk," and "cheese" varieties. These are typically smaller in size (usually weighing about 3 pounds), heavier, and have a thicker stem, as compared with the field pumpkin. On the inside, these eating pumpkins have a smaller seed cavity, more flesh, and are less stringy. They cook into sweeter, juicier, and more tender treats.
As you trudge through the patch, choose pumpkins that are free from blemishes and feel heavy for their size. A ripe pumpkin should have tough skin. To determine this, apply gentle pressure with your fingernail. If you can make a mark, the pumpkin isn't ready for cooking.
Pumpkin in Your Pantry
Keep whole pumpkins at room temperature for up to a month or in the refrigerator for up to three months. Once it's been cooked, though, store fresh, cooked pumpkin in the refrigerator for no more than five days, or in the freezer for up to six months.
Canned pumpkin is a great year-round option. It's fast, easy, and has all the nutrients of fresh pumpkin. Some studies have found that canned pumpkin has even higher levels of vitamin A and beta-carotene than fresh pumpkin.
Pumpkin on Your Plate
Pumpkin can be cooked by the same methods you use to cook other winter squash. To prepare, use a cleaver or very large knife to split the pumpkin in half or into wedges. Then scoop out the seeds and string. But don't throw out those seeds—rinse them, put them on a cookie sheet, and roast at a low temperature in the oven for a few minutes. Stir them often to avoid burning. Roasted pumpkin seeds can be eaten as snacks, or used in place of pine nuts. Many pumpkin seeds have shells. You can remove these if you wish, but many people enjoy eating pumpkin seed shells and benefit from the extra fiber they contain.
Once you've cut the pumpkin, a simple way to cook it is to place the pieces cut-side down in a baking dish with a ¼ inch of water. Bake at 350°F (177°C) until tender enough to pierce with a fork—about 45 minutes. To make pumpkin puree, let the pumpkin cool, peel off the skin with a paring knife, and use a food processor or a potato masher to puree. One pound of pumpkin will make about one cup of puree.
Instead of pureeing, you can turn the pieces right side up, and season with margarine or butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, or nutmeg, or stuff with a filling. Or, scoop out the cooked pumpkin and use in a casserole or other dish. There are so many more uses for the pumpkin!