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Pumpkin
Why Eat It
Varieties
Availability
Shopping
Storage
Preparation
Nutrition Chart


Why Eat It

A winter squash, the pumpkin is a hard-shelled gourd that is related to watermelons and muskmelons. Low in calories, pumpkins are very rich in fiber, potassium, riboflavin, and vitamins C and E. Mild and sweet in flavor, pumpkins offer plenty of nutritional value, and are particularly rich in carotenoid pigments such as alpha-carotene, beta carotene, and lutein. Outstanding amounts of beta carotene are found in pumpkin, with 1 cup of pumpkin providing 7.8 milligrams of this healthful pigment. Carotenoids are thought to protect against chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer, and may also ward off age-related vision loss. Pumpkins also supply nutritious seeds and oil.

Varieties

About 99% of the pumpkins marketed domestically are used as jack-o'-lanterns at Halloween. But these deep orange pumpkins--most of which belong to a variety called Connecticut Field--are too stringy to eat, and often too large. (They can easily grow to 20 pounds, and the very largest can exceed 200 pounds.) For pie filling and other cooking needs, pie pumpkins--a smaller, sweeter variety with close-grained flesh--are much better. There are also several miniature varieties that can be eaten fresh. However, most people prefer canned pumpkin, which tastes as good as fresh (and is just as nutritious). Jack-o’-lanterns: A market term for pumpkins that are grown for their large cavities and thin walls, making them perfect for carving (but not so good for cooking).

Japanese pumpkins: Also sold as a type of winter squash called kabocha, this turban-shaped squash has a rough shell with deep green and pale green stripes. It is sweet and tastes a little like sweet potato or pumpkin.

Mini pumpkins: Available in creamy-white as well as orange, these tiny versions of the real thing serve as an ornament rather than as an edible vegetable.

Pie pumpkins: A number of pumpkins with a very high flesh-to-seed-cavity ratio are used for pies rather than for decorative purposes such as carving. One particularly flavorful pumpkin in this category is called sugar pumpkin.

Availability

Fresh pumpkins are available only in the fall and early winter. The sweeter varieties suitable for baking usually go straight from the fields to the canning factories. However, canned pumpkin is fine for cooking and has the advantage of being available year round.

Shopping

When you buy canned pumpkin, be sure to get solid-pack pumpkin puree with no added spices or sweeteners.

Storage

Large carving pumpkins will keep, refrigerated, for about a week. Smaller, denser pumpkins, such as kabocha or pie pumpkins, will keep for about 1 month, refrigerated.

Preparation

Rinse off any dirt before using. To bake a pumpkin whole, cut a lid off the top (as though you were making a jack-o'-lantern), then use a tablespoon to scrape out the seeds and strings. To bake pieces of pumpkin, halve it with a heavy chef’s knife or a cleaver: Start by making a shallow cut in the skin to use as a guide to prevent the knife blade from slipping. Then place the blade in the cut and tap the base of the knife (near the handle) with your fist (or, if necessary, with a mallet or rolling pin) until the pumpkin is cut through. Scoop out the seeds and fibers and cut into smaller chunks.

Serve the baked pumpkin as is, or puree it to serve as a side dish. You can also cook the puree down further to use as a pumpkin pie filling.

Baking: Leave small pumpkins whole, with a lid cut out. For larger pumpkins, halve, scoop out the seeds and strings, and cut into serving-sized pieces. Place the pieces, cut-side down, in a foil-lined baking pan (its sugary juices may burn onto the pan). Pour about 1/4" of water into the pan, cover with foil, and bake in a 350° to 400° oven until tender when pierced with a knife or toothpick. Halfway through baking, the pieces may be turned, cut-side up, brushed with a little melted butter or oil, and sprinkled with brown sugar and spices. Cooking times: small whole pumpkins, 40 to 45 minutes; for cut-up pumpkin, 40 minutes.

Boiling: Although this method is faster than steaming, boiling water will dilute the flavor of the pumpkin slightly. Place peeled pumpkin pieces in a small amount of boiling water and cook until tender. Drain well. Cooking times: 8 to 12 minutes.

Microwaving: Place large chunks of pumpkin in a shallow microwavable dish, cover, and cook until tender. Let stand for 5 minutes after cooking. Cooking time: 8 minutes.

Sauteing: Grated or peeled, diced pumpkin can be sauteed in broth, or in a combination of broth and oil. Use a nonstick skillet, if possible. Grated pumpkin is best if it is cooked just to the point where it is still slightly crunchy. Cooking time: 8 to 15 minutes.

Steaming: Cook peeled chunks or slices of pumpkin in the steamer. Cooking time: 15 to 20 minutes.

Nutrition Chart

Pumpkin/1/2 cup fresh

25
Total fat (g)
0.1
Saturated fat (g)
0.1
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
1.4
1
Carbohydrate (g)
6
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
1
Beta-carotene (mg)
8

Pumpkin/1/2 cup canned puree

42
Total fat (g)
0.3
Saturated fat (g)
0.2
Monounsaturated fat (g)
0.1
Polyunsaturated fat (g)
0
Dietary fiber (g)
3.6
1
Carbohydrate (g)
10
Cholesterol (mg)
0
Sodium (mg)
6
Beta-carotene (mg)
16


Date Published: 04/20/2005
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