Thursday, October 11, 2012

Great Pumpkin, Where Are You?

With October’s cooler temperatures, I become like Linus, camped out at the nearest pumpkin patch.  In this case, that’s our local Farmer’s market.  Though Linus yearns for a toy delivery, the Great Pumpkin I seek is called "Sugar Pie."  Among the many pumpkin varieties, I’ve heard they’re the best for baking.  Like Linus, though, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Until I find a "Sugar Pie" I’ll make do with the standard field pumpkin.  Pound for pound, they’re powerhouse vegetables.  Not only are they economical, they’re packed with nutritional value.  Pumpkins have no saturated fat or cholesterol, yet are rich in anti-oxidants and dietary fiber.  They contain some of the highest levels of Vitamin A, as well as carotene and other flavonoids which enable the body to convert and absorb that vitamin.  This winter squash also provides Vitamin C, Thiamin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Iron, Magnesium Phosphorus, Riboflavin, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.  And the benefits go beyond the vibrant flesh.  The seeds are also an excellent dietary source of fiber and mono-unsaturated fatty acids.  They are concentrated sources of protein, minerals, vitamins, and a substantial amount of the amino acid, tryptophan.

Fresh pumpkin (or squash) is a snap to prepare, and the puree freezes well, too.  Simply wash and dry the fruit’s exterior, then cut in half and remove the seeds and strings, reserving the seeds for roasting later.  Place, cut side down, on a parchment lined sheet pan and bake in a 325º oven for about an hour (depending on size.)  The pumpkin is done when a knife is easily inserted through the shell.  Allow to cool slightly before handling, but the scraping and processing are done more easily while the pumpkin remains warm.  Puree the scooped pulp in a blender or food processor.  Strained to remove any strings or larger lumps, this puree was a lip-smacking favorite of both my kids when they were babies.

If you plan to bake with the freshly-made puree, allow it to cool to room temperature before using as an ingredient.  Store excess pumpkin puree in freezer-safe containers, allowing room for expansion in each container.  Average storage life for the frozen puree is about one year; although, no matter how well any produce is packaged, all frozen foods lose color, flavor, texture, and nutritional value the longer they’re stored.  Our supply usually lasts through to spring, when fresh produce is once again available.

While pumpkins are fresh and whole, there’s no rush to process them.  The squash family are self-contained packages which store easily and tidily.  As long as their stems remain firmly intact, and the pumpkins are kept in a cool, well-ventilated place (not subject to freezing), most have a shelf life of three months, and some as long as six months, depending on the variety.

Prior to processing, if you plan on using pumpkins for Halloween decoration, consider drawing on the pumpkin’s surface with a felt marker rather than carving out pieces.  This makes subsequent processing simpler:  the marker doesn’t affect the puree, the complete half-shells cook more evenly, and the flesh scrapes more thoroughly from larger shell pieces.

Eating seasonal foods has considerable benefits – both for budgets and nutritional intake. Pumpkins, because of their low cost and excellent food values, are clear champions of autumn.  No wonder Linus calls them great!