This winter squash may commonly populate the front porches and windowsills of homes across North America, but it’s about time our buddy Jack be given the recognition he deserves: as a major power-player in the fight against cancer and heart disease.
Beyond their decorative function, pumpkins are healthy, versatile and much easier to cook than you might think. Most of the pumpkins you’ll see in your local markets belong to the Cucurbita pepo species of squash, which also includes acorn and spaghetti squash, as well as zucchini.
The pumpkins used for jack-o-lanterns usually average in weight from nine to 18 pounds and yield great seeds for roasting, but may not be as ideal for cooking with, as they are often stringy. Pumpkins that are best for cooking are sugar or pie pumpkins, as well as the Autumn Gold or Ghost Rider varieties. All feature a sweeter taste and creamier texture than the ones you buy for carving.
The high beta-carotene content of pumpkin is what gives it its cancer- and heart disease-fighting properties. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that is also known to help regulate the blood sugar levels of diabetics. A one-cup serving of pumpkin is ranked number two among the top 10 foods containing the highest content of beta-carotene per serving according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A one-cup serving of pumpkin contains just 49 calories and also provides a good dose of potassium (564 mg) and dietary fibre (three grams). And here’s good news for the male members of your family: pumpkin seeds may help prevent prostate cancer in men. The seeds are also a good source of protein, magnesium, zinc, and could possibly help lower cholesterol.
How to Select
Look for pumpkins that are free from soft spots, nicks or bruises. Bruises can indicate a pumpkin is on the verge of rotting, while nicks or cuts can lead to quick infection and deterioration of your pumpkin. Surface marks or imperfections do not indicate a bad pumpkin.
If you do want to cook with carving pumpkins (and you certainly can!), look for smaller ones weighing around 4 to 8 pounds, as the larger ones usually have coarser, stringier flesh.
How to Store and Use Pumpkin
You can store pumpkins outdoors out of direct sunlight or indoors in a cool dry place. Pumpkins can last as long as anywhere from 3 to 6 months, but will need to be used as soon as they start to soften.
Once cooked, the pulp of pumpkin can be featured in a never-ending list of delicious meals and treats including pumpkins or waffles, muffins, breads, cookies, stews, soups and pasta dishes. And don’t forget those delicious seeds, which are traditionally roasted – how you choose to spice and flavour them is up to your imagination and personal preference!
How to Prep
Cut your pumpkin in half, remove the seeds and scrape out any stringy flesh.
Once you’ve cut your pumpkin in half, you can peel the skin using a potato peeler and then cut into smaller chunks. Another option is to cut it into big chunks, boil until the flesh can be pierced easily with a fork (but does not fall apart) and then remove the softened skin once cooled. Remember that larger pieces will take longer to cook. Once cooked, the chunks can be used whole or mashed or puréed.
Place the pumpkin halves face down in a roasting pan, fill with ¼ inch of water and bake for 45 to 60 minutes. You should be able to easily pierce the flesh with a fork. Once cooked, scoop out the cooked pumpkin and mash or purée.
How to Store
Refrigerate in airtight container for up to 3 days or fill ice cube trays with pumpkin purée. Once frozen, remove cubes and store in an airtight container for up to 3 months for quick use in soups, smoothies or as baby food!