Pumpkins are actually a squash, but to rephrase Shakespeare, a pumpkin by any other name would still taste as sweet. In fact, in Italy, pumpkin and all winter squashes are lumped together under the same name, zucca. Pumpkins and their hearty and harder squash cousins all belong to the gourd family (the plant family known as Cucurbitaceaea group that includes more than 900 species). While there are varieties found around the world, many have been cultivated by native peoples of the Americas.
These are plants that have traveled the world; Christopher Columbus took pumpkins back to Europe, and Portuguese explorers carried them to Cambodia where one variety, Cambodia abóbora, made its way to Japan where its name was shortened to Japanese “kabobora” or “kabocha,” also called Japanese pumpkin.
In the U.S., we tend to think of pumpkins primarily as Jack-o’-lanterns or for use in sweet treats like pumpkin pies, custard, and muffins. In France, they are frequent ingredients in savory dishes, and in the Ukraine, they are the ultimate kiss off: potential brides traditionally used them as a way to say no to their suitor’s proposal. (It was believed that pumpkins could help increase a man’s virility, so the gifting of a pumpkin was a strong hint to up his manhood.)
The bright yellow-orange flesh of pumpkins and winter squash is rich in carotenoids like alpha and beta carotenes. The body uses carotenoids as the precursors to produce Vitamin A, which is essential for healthy eyes, skin, hair, lungs, and immune function. Pumpkins are also good sources of iron, Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and the dark orange carotenoid called lutein, which is important for prostate and heart health. dark orange carotenoid called lutein, which is important for prostate and heart health. Pumpkin’s sweet, nutty seeds, also known as pepitas, are rich in protein, minerals, essential fatty acids, and the natural phytochemical known as phytosterol.
Feast on Pumpkin
Given the colors, varieties, health benefits and plentitude of squashes available during the winter months, try using your hearty and heart-warming winter squash (and pepitas) in one of these surprising festive suggestions:
- Seeds and Trail Mix, Place raw seeds on a sheet pan, sprinkle with sea salt and bake in the oven at 350° for 20 minutes or more until they are done to your liking. Toast- ed seeds have a pale and golden or toasty brown color. Combine toasted pumpkin seeds with raw cacao nibs, fruit-juice sweetened cranberries, sunflower seeds, and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper to make an autumn trail mix.
- Dessert, Roast acorn squash halves or squash chunks with pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon and a drizzle of agave nectar for a sweet, simple dessert.
- Smoothie, In a blender, puree roasted, sweetened squash chunks with soy milk or yogurt and ice, season with pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, and/or ginger, and sweeten with additional honey, agave nectar or Stevia, as needed for a pumpkin-pie smoothie.
- Soup, Roast pumpkin halves with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, then scoop out the flesh, cook it with vegetable broth, grated ginger, and curry seasoning. Purée, and then return to heat and warm with some luxurious coconut milk for a curried pumpkin soup.
- Salad Topping, Cut up chunks of butter nut or kabocha squash and roast with olive oil, sea salt and pepper until it is able to be gently pierced with a fork. Let cool and place atop salad greens with pomegranate seeds, walnuts, blue or goat cheese, and drizzle with balsamic vinaigrette.
- Vegan Mac-N-Cheese, For a hearty, yet vegan replacement to the comfort of mac’n cheese, roast butternut squash halves with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile, cook quinoa or rice in salted vegetable broth. Once the squash is fork tender, scoop the flesh from the peel and mix into the cooked rice/quinoa. Drizzle with additional olive oil, taste and adjust seasoning for salt and pepper and enjoy.
- Veggie Stew, For a simple weeknight stew, consider the Three Sisters, a Native American staple traditionally planted to gether. The beans grow up the corn stalks and supply the soil with a source of nitrogen while squash is planted in between to keep out the weeds and provide shade for the corn’s shallow roots.
- Three Sisters, In a large skillet, sauté a chopped onion and a couple cloves of gar- lic in olive oil until tender, and then add chunks of steamed or cooked squash with a can of rinsed, drained beans of your choice, and fresh or frozen corn kernels. Add broth or water to just cover. Season with salt, pepper, and dried sage and simmer 15-20 minutes until the flavors marry and the stew becomes thick and moist. Serve with fried or fresh sage as garnish.
- Face Mask, Create an antiaging facial mask rich in Vitamin A to help exfoliate the skin. This acts much like retinol or retina, but without harsh chemicals. Pumpkin helps to soothe, exfoliate and moisturize the skin, especially when combined with honey and is beneficial for sensitive skin. Use canned or cooked pumpkin, or collect some of the raw flesh when you scrape out the seeds. If using raw pumpkin, mash with a mortar/pestle or use a small food processor to puree, drizzle in half as much honey for added moisture, and add a little yogurt or milk for additional exfoliation (from the lactic acid content). Apply to clean dry skin and relax for about 15 minutes while it takes effect, then rinse off with cool water.
- Decoration, Simplest of all, use your pumpkin and colorful winter squashes as a still life or centerpiece for your fall table. They’re gorgeous and they keep for months as long as they’re away from heat and direct sunlight. Or, you can even carve them and fill them with crudités, grapes, or chunks of cheese so that your centerpiece is festive and edible.