In the Garden:
Considered a super food, pumpkins can be a year-round treat.
When the Frost is on the Pumpkin...
We all enjoy the eerie smiles from glowing jack o' lanterns, and, certainly, pumpkin pie is a quintessential part of Thanksgiving dinner, but did you know that many nutrition experts consider pumpkin a super food? With a wide variety of pumpkins now widely available at markets, this is the perfect time to stock up for the winter and learn to use them in all types of recipes. Next year, why not try your hand at growing your own?
Pumpkin: A Versatile, Nutritious Vegetable
Pumpkin's bright orange color is a clue to its high beta-carotene content, a carotenoid that converts into vitamin A when eaten. Vitamin A is essential for eye health, bone growth, regulating the immune system, and fighting infections. Your eyes are also helped out by the high lutein and zeaxanthin content. A one-cup serving has just 49 calories, 2 grams of protein, and 12 grams of carbohydrates, while being rich in minerals, including potassium, copper, manganese, zinc, selenium, iron, and magnesium.
In the kitchen, remember that pumpkins are closely related to winter squash, and, as such, can be used in similar ways, whether roasted, boiled, steamed, microwaved, or grilled. At its most basic, simply serve cooked pumpkin with salt, pepper, and a bit of butter or olive oil. Or consider mixing peeled and diced pumpkin with other vegetables, like onions, red peppers, and carrots, then roasting. Another option is to toss pumpkin cubes into soups, stews, or chili.
A simple way to prepare pumpkin is to cut into wedges or slices, sprinkle with herbs and spices and bake. For savory dishes, the favorite flavorings to use with pumpkin include sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano, marjoram, ginger, cumin, turmeric, chili powder, curry powder, cinnamon, cloves, and mustard.
Pureed pumpkin, either homemade or bought canned, can be used in pancakes, waffles, muffins, and quick breads, or as the basic for pumpkin soup.
Choosing a Pumpkin
Native to North America and cultivated for about 9,000 years, pumpkins are members of the Cucurbita genus. Most varieties are variations on Cucurbita maxima, but some members are more closely related to other species, including C. moschata. Most of the larger forms tend toward having stringy flesh, so these are best used for jack o' lanterns. Preferred for eating are the smaller types, often referred to as sugar or pie pumpkins. Some of the varieties in this category include New England Pie, Orange Smoothie, Small Sugar, Autumn Gold, Baby Bear, and Chucky. For individual servings, try the baby types like Jack Be Little, Baby Boo, or Wee-B-Little.
Another option are the heirloom types that come in a variety of shapes and colors. Among these are Rouge Vif D' Etampes (also known as the Cinderella), tan-skinned Long Island Cheese, slate-grey Jarrahdale, and the orange hubbard-like Red October, the blue-green, bubbled-skin Marina Di Chioggia, or the Japanese pumpkin known as Kabocha.
Seeds, the Pumpkin Bonus
In addition to the nutrient-rich pumpkin flesh, the seeds of pumpkins are an excellent source of protein plus a wide range of vitamins, most notably vitamin K, and minerals, including copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc. Pumpkin seeds are a part of traditional Mexican cooking, where the flat, dark green hulled seeds are known as pepitas.
The seeds that are removed fresh from a pumpkin are surrounded by a white hull. To prepare these for eating, rinse the seeds and place on a towel or baking sheet to dry for several hours or overnight. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment, then spread the dried seeds on the sheet in a single layer. Bake the seeds for 45 to 55 minutes, or until brown and slightly crispy, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool before eating or storing in an airtight container.
Some people are fine with eating the seeds, hull and all, while others of us are not. One option if you don't like the hulls is to use the hull-less seeds from pumpkin varieties like Kakai, Snack Jack, or Lady Godiva. Another option is to simply buy them already hulled.
Growing Your Own Pumpkins
The major deterrents to growing your own pumpkins are that they require a great deal of space and they are susceptible to beetles, bugs, and borers, plus diseases. If space is an issue in your garden, consider a variety called Chucky, a productive variety bearing 2- to 3-pound orange pumpkins on semi-bush vines, or Speckled Hound, also considered a semi-bush type, with 3- to 6-pound fruits that are orange with blue-green markings. To foil pests and diseases, it helps to keep floating row covers over the plants until they begin flowering. Fur further details on pest control, consult sources on the web or your county cooperative extension service
Otherwise, in growing pumpkins, they grow best in full sun and in excellent draining soil enriched with compost. Plan on a long growing season, as most pumpkin varieties need about 100 days to mature. You'll want two or three plants in each hill, spaced 6 to 8 feet apart. Mulch to control weeds and maintain even moisture. Irrigate if there is a drought. Harvest pumpkins when the skin can't be punctured with a fingernail. Unless frost threatens, don't harvest until the vine dies. Before storing pumpkins, cure then in a warm, well-ventilated room for a week or two, then store in a dry, well-ventilated area at 50 to 60 degrees F.
Whether you grow your own or select from among those available at markets, enjoy pumpkins for their nutritional value and culinary usefulness as well as those flickering grins.
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