When did pumpkins enter into my life? It must have been with my early introduction to Mother Goose. At this time in my life Jack-o’-lanterns, pumpkin pie, and Mother Goose’s verse about the pumpkin eater and his method for controlling his wife comprised my entire repertoire of pumpkin knowledge and experience. Within a year or two of learning Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, I’d have to say my pumpkin awareness was thin at best. Can you remember when we only thought of pumpkins for Jack-o’-Lanterns and pie? I was the nutritional gatekeeper of family foods as my children were growing up. At least this is how Brian Wansink, author of one of our strongly recommended books, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think defines this term. In my role as gatekeeper, the only expansion on my experience was making toasted pumpkin seeds from Jack-o’-lantern innards. But now I use pumpkins in a wide variety of yummy dishes. I think that I’m not alone in the considerable growth in the use of pumpkins over the past decade or two.
Although, it has expanded my pumpkin experience, I want to clarify that I’m not talkin’ here of the punkin chuckin’ trebuchet that one of our sons built for his scout troop a few years ago. By the way, if you want to learn how to delight a group of scouts, go no further than this. In this post, I am writing about eating the fruit (yes, its classified as a fruit, not a veggie) and about the variety of recipes that are in cookbooks, card files and family meals. It is amazing how many pumpkin recipes have crept into my repertoire of cooking skills in these past years. In addition, pumpkin seems to be a fairly common ingredient for chefs and families. This amazes me! “Why,” you ask? This is one of those rare movements in culinary change, which has a net positive effect. Now there’s something to be thankful for, right in the month of Thanksgiving – a nutritional change for the better. Wonderful!
Pumpkin recipes bring warm thoughts of hearty, healthy, autumn warmth. I won’t spend lots of time writing about all the fiber, and list all the nutrients that are in pumpkin, but I will share here that it is a great ingredient choice, if you’re striving to move toward a Mediterranean-style of eating. The fruit, if you want to consider it a vegetable that’s just fine with me – it doesn’t make a speck of difference how you think of it – just think of it as a versatile whole food to have on hand.
Besides helping toward any Mediterranean-style eating goals you might have, pumpkins can be a benefit to your plan to not have a winter weight gain this year. If you plan it just right, that is, if you can keep your pumpkins safe from the trebuchet crowd, you can stretch your family’s food budget, while providing delicious and nourishing menu items. One of the facts that slowed me down in the past, for using fresh pumpkins was that they are so hard to cut. But once I learned to just poke some holes and bake them to soften them up (use a tray to catch the juices), my pumpkin cooking experiences began to grow.
The hole punching is not a step to forget; as you do not want an exploded pumpkin in the oven. If you’re game for putting a pumpkin in the oven rather than opening cans, you can bake your real, whole pumpkin until it yields to gentle pressure and remove it from the oven. Let it cool until it can be comfortably handled. Then cut it open and scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff; remove the skin and cut the flesh into the size that you will use in your recipe; it freezes perfectly in a freezer zip bag or plastic container. Another option is to bake it until it is soft and collapses (more than a little yielding to the touch with a oven mitt). This soft-roasted pumpkin is just perfect for puréed recipes like soup, and pie – I love the flavor of the softer pumpkin – a little caramelizing goes on.
If you don’t want to bother with fresh pumpkin, the canned version is waiting right on the grocery store shelf; so don’t let the prospect of baking or cooking whole pumpkins stop your healthy creativity. As pointed out in the Spending a Fortune on Food in Order to Eat Healthily post, pumpkin costs so much less than other winter squash and can be used for most winter squash recipes. Pumpkin is equally at home paired with savory ingredients like sage, garlic, rosemary, crushed red pepper, cumin, cayenne and curry; as it is with cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger in a dessert or breakfast cake or muffin.
Being creative with pumpkin
- Using pumpkin is only limited by your creative imagination. Think of adding or substituting pumpkin in recipes for soup, tapioca pudding, pancakes, muffins, quick breads or nut breads, curries, stir-fry and smoothies. Some of the elite chefs are adding pumpkin to chilies and stews.
- Pumpkin curry is one of my favorites; every time I go to the Thai restaurant (we tend to go to the same one frequently because they serve brown rice) I order Pumpkin Curry.
- Pumpkins naturally pair with another fall harvest food – nuts; both are conveniently in the Mediterranean-style of eating. One of the benefits of adding pumpkin to baked goods is that you can use it to cut fat – decrease the oil or butter and add the canned or defrosted baked pumpkin.
- Whole-wheat pumpkin rolls are a beautiful golden color – nice for Thanksgiving table.
- It was a big surprise to me some years ago when I was in New Zealand to find both pumpkin and yams used in stir-fry – that was a great discovery.
- Pumpkin lasagna – no meat, use a skim milk ricotta cheese, a little feta or fresh mozzarella, and lightly sprinkle with parmesan – focus on the pumpkin, tomatoes, onions, eggplant and, of course, generous amounts of herbs.
- Some people in countries where there is little or no refrigeration, store pumpkins because they don’t have other vegetables in winter – pumpkins preserve their health in winter. That’s one of the nice things about pumpkins, they store well in a cold storage room – not taking up precious refrigeration space.
- Afghan kaddo bawrani – a recipe for baked pumpkin, Middle Eastern style main course or appetizer with cinnamon yogurt sauce.
- Now it seems that you can find pumpkin in many different prepared food items. I make Muffins Your Way with pumpkin and it is a favorite. When I have a large selection of muffins for a gathering, I have been pleasantly surprised to run out of Pumpkin Orange Spice Muffins first. (This is, of course, my organic whole-wheat, no-added sugar mix.)
- Pumpkin wheat berry pilaf, with sage, parsley, nutmeg and garlic is a flavorful and healthy dinner for the family.
- Another of our family’s traditions is a rice casserole baked in a scooped out pumpkin shell. When you serve it, you scoop some of the pumpkin with the rice portion.
When should you see pumpkin caution lights blinking?
- Let’s start with the pumpkin-spice latte, advertised as a seasonal treat not to be missed (unless, of course you don’t want to turn your calorie-free cup of morning java into a 380 calorie (120 from fat) accompaniment to your 470 calorie muffin. Oopsie! 850 calories for breakfast – maybe a birthday breakfast.
- Pumpkin eggnog – that reminds me of when I used to teach nutrition and was trying to help the students learn about where the calories were lurking. I’d bring in three types of cake, (carrot, chocolate and yellow) and ask the students to guess which was the lowest in calories. Invariably they would guess the carrot cake, and I would ask why they would guess it – they would refer to the low calorie carrot. Putting pumpkin or carrots, for that matter, into some high-fat, high-calorie food does not significantly decrease the calories.
- Pumpkin ice cream – read sentence above. Although some of the new double churned lower fat versions are making pumpkin ice cream this year, 110 calories per half cup – not bad for ice cream.
- Pumpkin cheesecake, cookies, pie, bars, and bread pudding; there are certainly things that you can do to reduce the sugar (like using Dr. Grandma’s Delight or another natural zero-calorie sweetener), or reduce the fat. Eat a very small portion; share the portion or skip all or most of the crust. Try making a crust-less pie to dramatically reduce the fat and calories of pie. Make low fat pumpkin custard – save more calories by substituting Dr. Grandma’s Delight.
- Cream-based soups should send up the caution signal. If your recipe includes 700 calories a cup of fluid light cream or 821 calories for heavy cream, try using whole milk (150/cup) or maybe try olive oil (120 calories/tablespoon) for body, and skim milk (80 calories a fluid cup) to get the saturated fat down. Soup is a great way to get a head start fending off the winter calories. If you can choose water-based, or modified cream soups, they fill you for fewer calories than an all-solid meal. In addition, high-fiber fruits like pumpkin, vegetables, whole grains (noodles, wheat berries or brown rice), and beans help you feel full longer.
In conclusion, this grandma’s little bit of pumpkin lore has grown into a stack of recipes and techniques. While pumpkin shells seem to have failed generally as wife-keepers, they now serve as a versatile staple that can fit into many meals and nourish for months past Thanksgiving. Quick, snatch a couple of those pumpkins out of the trebuchet pile before they are catapulted to their doom.