Perryman Nutrition Column: Be a Pumpkin Eater

Note to Reporters: The following column is written by Shirley Perryman, an Extension specialist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. The department is part of the College of Applied Human Sciences at Colorado State University.

As the warmth of summer fades into the crisp chill of autumn, bright orange pumpkins are on display in fields and markets and appearing on front porches with carved and painted faces.

While pumpkins are a festive fall decoration, they also are delicious to eat; You likely recall the nursery rhyme about Peter being a pumpkin eater? Many of us have enjoyed various kinds of squash, which resemble pumpkin, but most of us have only tasted pumpkin in pie traditionally served at Thanksgiving. Pumpkin isn’t just for pie. There are many more ways to serve and savor this delectable, nutritious fall squash.

Pumpkin is usually served in sweet dishes but it can also be savory. The best eating pumpkins are the small pie pumpkins or sugar pumpkins. If you try to cook with the usual jack-o-lantern variety, you’ll find it won’t be as sweet and the texture may contain more water. If you do decide to use the jack-o-lantern variety for cooking, consider buying an extra pumpkin for that purpose or skip the carving and use markers to decorate the outside. Pumpkins shrivel up and start to mold after they are cut.

Eating pumpkins are smaller, which makes them more manageable for peeling the tough outer skin and cutting into chunks. Ideas for fast and yummy pumpkin treats include:
– Brush peeled pumpkin chunks with olive oil, sprinkle them lightly with salt and roast in the oven for a perfect accompaniment to your main dish.
– Add cubed pieces of pumpkin to your favorite stew along with the potatoes.
– Add small pieces of pumpkin to your favorite stir fry or chili recipe.
– Mashed pumpkin added to chicken or vegetable broth with a small amount of cream makes a delectable soup. Use fat free half and half instead of cream to keep the calories in check.
– Try adding cooked, pureed pumpkin to bread and muffin recipes in place of applesauce or bananas for a change in flavor.
– Picky eaters may not notice added pumpkin puree in spaghetti sauce or soups, The pumpkin gives these items a nutritional boost but the taste of pumpkin is subtle. Pumpkin puree freezes well to use later in sauces and soups.

Don’t toss the pumpkin seeds, called pepitas — they can be a healthy snack! After carving a pumpkin or cutting one up to cook with, wash the pumpkin seeds to remove the fibrous pumpkin tissue. Lightly coat them with oil and salt, then toast them in the oven. Pepitas can be sprinkled over sautéed vegetables or mixed green salads or mix them into your favorite cookie recipe, granola or trail mix. Pepitas add a nice crunch to burgers, whether they’re made from veggies, legumes or ground meat.

Pumpkin could qualify as a superfood. In addition to being low in calories it contains: 
– Betacarotene, an antioxidant that helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and stroke. It may also protect against diseases of aging like cataracts and macular degeneration. 
– Fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and normalize blood sugar levels.
– Pepitas, the pumpkin seeds, which may promote prostate health.

If cooking a fresh pumpkin seems like too much work, you’re in luck. It’s that time of year when the shelves in grocery stores are well stocked with cans of pumpkin. Be aware there are two kinds: One is plain pumpkin and the other is pumpkin pie filling, which is sweetened and has added spices.

Be adventuresome this fall and challenge yourself to cook or roast a pumpkin. Don’t forget to toast the pumpkin seeds. Be a pumpkin eater and you may enjoy its health benefits, too.