I am a sucker for pumpkin. Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin muffins – you name it, I'm into it. Lucky for me, all things pumpkin seem to be cropping up everywhere these days. From Dunkin' Donuts to our local kale-centric coffee shop, coffee appears to be pumpkin's long-lost cousin. And pumpkin – the real stuff, not just the flavor – is an incredibly healthy ingredient.
Seasonality: Pumpkins are available from September through November; availability peaks in October.
Cooking vs. pie pumpkins: We mostly associate pumpkins with Halloween, but the pumpkin was used by Native Americans since before the first Thanksgiving. The type of pumpkin that will yield a scary jack-o'-lantern is not only bigger than what you'd want to use in the kitchen, it also contains more moisture and is much more fibrous. Pumpkins used for cooking are fleshier and denser, which makes for a great pie – but isn't so great for decorating your front porch.
[Read: Pumpkin, 3 Ways.]
What to look for: You can find cooking pumpkins at your farmers market, farm stands and even some grocery stores. Look for these varieties: Long Island Cheese, Cinderella (of course!), New England Pie and Sweetie Pie. Some varieties, like Winter Luxury, are actually great for both carving and eating. There are even some gorgeous bluish-green pumpkins!
A nice cooking pumpkin will be in the 3- to 6-pound range. One small pumpkin should be enough to make a couple pies. And for show stopping jack-o'-lanterns, look for Aladdin, Howden, Rock Star, Wolf and Magic Lantern varieties.
Health: Pumpkin is wonderful for adding moisture to baked goods, it's really rich in beta-carotene and fiber, and it's low in calories – only 49 per cup of cooked pumpkin. Pumpkin seeds, or "pepitas," are a rich source of magnesium, an important bone-building mineral.
How to choose: Buy a pumpkin that still has its stem attached. The stem should be dark green, which indicates that the pumpkin has been freshly harvested. The stem of the pumpkin is also called the "handle," but you actually should never use it to pick up the pumpkin. The color of the skin should be uniform, with no green areas. And check for soft spots – those could mean that the pumpkin was stored in a moist area and could get moldy quickly.
How to store: You can keep a whole pumpkin for up to a month at room temperature and in the refrigerator for up to three months.
How to use it: As a longtime canned pumpkin user, I was intimidated by the thought of making pumpkin purée from scratch, but I decided it was worth the extra work – and hopefully you will, too. Make sure to wash the surface of the pumpkin well with warm running water before using it to remove any dirt and debris. Cutting through the pumpkin is tough work (use a serrated knife), but once you've managed that, it's pretty smooth sailing. Scoop out the seeds (save them for roasting later) and remove any stringy bits. To make pumpkin purée, you can roast, steam or even microwave the pumpkin halves and then scoop out the flesh. Then use an immersion blender (or food processor) to turn the cooked pumpkin into purée. Pumpkin purée can be used in pies, muffins, cookies, soups, sauces or as a filling for ravioli. Roasted cubed pumpkin can be tossed with pasta and grains or used in salads. To cube the pumpkin flesh, seed the pumpkin, then peel off the thick skin and cut the flesh into cubes.
My little goblins and I will be shopping for a pumpkin this weekend. Not for cooking, but for decorating. I can't wait to stick some googley eyes on it! But for cooking I have a local cheese pumpkin arriving today from FreshDirect. Pumpkin ravioli with pumpkin sauce, anyone?
[Read: Unusual Uses for Pumpkins.]
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Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.