Pumpkins make a great fall decoration, jack-o-lantern, and pie. However, pumpkins lend themselves to a large variety of cooking methods, both sweet and savory.
“Most parts of the pumpkin are edible, from the flowers and skin to the seeds,” said Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
Whether a person is carving or eating a pumpkin, they first have to deal with the pumpkin seeds.
Simply roasted and salted, the seeds are a special treat. They make a delicious, high protein snack, or can be added to granola or a snack mix with dried fruit and nuts.
“Studies have associated eating pumpkin seeds with lower risks of several different types of cancer. Pumpkin seeds are a good source of zinc, polyunsaturated fatty acids and phytosterols, which have been shown to help prevent chronic diseases,” said Duitsman.
Pumpkin is very nutrient dense. Research on the chemical composition and nutritive value of pumpkins shows they are rich in proteins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals such as carotenoids and tocopherols, and minerals, but are low in fat and calories.
Carotenoids and tocopherols act as strong antioxidants and play important roles in decreasing DNA damage, protecting lipids from peroxidation, strengthening the immune system, and helping to protect a human body from cancer and cardiovascular disease.
“Both of these phytochemicals offer defense against other diseases as well as some deteriorating aspects of aging,” said Duitsman.
Beta-carotene has the unique role of being converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is essential for vision, healthy skin, bone development and many other functions.
Because of the high amount of beta-carotene in pumpkin, only one-half cup of cooked, mashed pumpkin contains more than 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, and only 24 calories.
Select pumpkins according to how they will be used. For a jack-o-lantern, a large, well-shaped pumpkin works best. For cooking, pumpkins that are small and heavy for their size, ranging from about five to seven pounds 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.
Whole pumpkins (not cut and free of bruises) can last several months if stored in a dry, cool (50-55 degrees F is best) airy location where they will not freeze or be exposed to insects or rodents.
Before using for food preparation, rinse and scrub the pumpkin clean. Cut open the pumpkin before cooking and remove the seeds and stringy material. Cut the flesh of the pumpkin into wedges or halves.
“Once you cut a 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 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 and can be used as a substitute for canned pumpkin.
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 Fahrenheit for up to one year. Use rigid plastic containers leaving one-half inch headspace for expansion, or use freezer bags. Package in amounts that will be used in 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: 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 for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Salt if desired, cool and store.
Roasted pumpkin seeds make a terrific high 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 will be kept longer than 10 to 14 days, place in the freezer.
For a fun meal idea, bake small pumpkin halves and stuff them with your favorite meat, rice or vegetable mixtures. Pumpkins can be used in place of winter squash or sweet potatoes in recipes.
For more information on nutrition contact any of these nutrition specialists in southwest Missouri: Dr. Pam Duitsman in Greene County at (417) 881-8909; Lindsey Gordon Stevenson in Barton County at (417) 682-3579; Stephanie Johnson in Howell County at (417) 256-2391 or Mary Sebade in Dallas County at (417) 345-7551. The regional office of the Family Nutrition Education Program is located in Springfield and can be reached at (417) 886-2059. Nutrition information is also available online http://extension.missouri.edu.