Although we often think of pumpkins in terms of pie or Halloween decorations, they are more versatile than most people think.
“The flesh of the pumpkin can be used in a variety of cooked dishes as a good source of vitamins K and A, magnesium, fiber and potassium,” says Janet Hackert, regional nutrition and health education specialist for University of Missouri Extension.
Vitamin A helps maintain eye health, potassium helps maintain healthy blood pressure, and vitamin K and magnesium work together with calcium and vitamin D to build and maintain strong bones, says Hackert. Pumpkins also provide vitamin C, folic acid, pantothenic acid and copper.
When choosing a pumpkin for eating, select varieties bred for flavor, known as pie or sweet pumpkins. “These are usually smaller, sweeter and have more pulp than the types used for jack-o’-lanterns,” she says.
Hackert says larger, waterier, decorative pumpkins can also be eaten. When using a pumpkin for both decoration and food, keep it safe to eat by drawing on it with nontoxic paint or markers instead of carving it. “Or, better yet, get one for carving and one for eating.”
Under cool running water, use a vegetable brush to scrub dirt and germs away from the pumpkin. This helps to avoid driving into the flesh any harmful bacteria that may be lurking on the outside surfaces.
Pumpkin can be canned, frozen or dried for later use. “Can pumpkin in chunks — pureed pumpkin is too thick to can safely, and no research-based recipe or procedure has been developed for home canning,” Hackert warns.
For more information on canning pumpkin and other winter squash, the MU Extension guide “Quality for Keeps: Preserve Your Garden Delights — How to Can Fresh Vegetables” (GH1454) is available at extension.missouri.edu/p/GH1454.
To freeze, select full-colored mature pumpkins with fine texture. Wash, cut into cooking-sized sections and remove seeds. Cook until soft in boiling water, steam, pressure cooker, oven or microwave. Small pumpkins can be pierced and baked whole on a tray in an oven or microwave until soft. Bake at 325 degrees until a fork or knife pierces the skin easily. Let cool and scoop out the flesh. It should fall away from the skin when done. To cool cubed, steamed pumpkin, place pan containing the pumpkin in cold water and stir occasionally. Then remove the pulp from the rind and mash. Package the pumpkin in sealable containers or bags in amounts to match your recipes, label and freeze until ready to use it.
Pumpkin can be used to make pies, but it can also be used in many other ways, Hackert says. “Try it as squash chunks, with just a little margarine drizzled on them. Or puree the squash, add a little margarine, sprinkle with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, mix it in and you have a quick and easy crustless mock-pumpkin pie. The puree can also be used in cakes, cookies and bread.”
Pumpkin and other winter squashes can also be grilled, she says. Wash them, cut in slivers or slit in half the long way, remove seeds and membranes, and lay the open side down toward the heat. Place in a cooler part of the grill for slow, even cooking. Season with garlic, cumin or other spices you use for vegetables.