When we think of winter squash, the orange rounded bodies of Jack-o-lanterns come to mind. (Not the ones with carved faces. This is what a carving pumpkin is called.) Members of the Curcurbitaceae family, they come in various shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors, and have common characteristics like hardened shells that are difficult to pierce, which enable them to have long storage periods (1-6 months). Their hollow cavities also give us a favorite snack: pumpkin seeds.
Varieties include the acorn, butternut, Hubbard, spaghetti, and turban squash; “Jack-o-lanterns”, Cinderella, Japanese (also known as kabocha), mini, and pie pumpkins. Interestingly, as fun as that common pumpkin is to carve, it is known for being rather uninteresting to a cook.
Winter squash are excellent sources of carotenes, vitamins, C and B1, folic acid, pantothenic acid, potassium, and dietary fiber. They are also a good source of riboflavin, niacin, iron, and vitamin B6. Beyond these basics, other health benefits include having a protective effect against many cancers–lung cancer in particular– and heart disease. Diets rich in carotenes also appear to ward off the development of adult-onset diabetes (Type II), and age-related vision loss as it is a source of lutein, a carotenoid linked to reducing the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. The seeds of pumpkins have been shown to reduce symptoms of benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH). They are rich in vitamin E, iron, magnesium, and zinc, and provide essential and unsaturated fatty acids (good fats).
When choosing winter squash (and pumpkins), inspect the vegetable carefully for signs of decay and mildew or mold. Choose squash that are firm, heavy for their size, and have dull, not glossy, rinds that are also hard (as soft rinds may indicate that the squash is watery and lacking in flavor). As winter squash has a longer storage life than summer squash, it may last longer than a month and should be kept in from direct exposure to sunlight and to temperatures that are either extremely hot or cold.
Once cut, winter squash can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to two days (3-5 days if cooked); or can be frozen in pieces suitable for individual recipes. Canned pumpkin puree (notpumpkin pie filling) is both convenient and a rich,
low-fat source of pumpkin nutrients. Although denser than homemade mashed pumpkin due to the reduction process to prevent a watery pumpkin pie, which results in twice as many calories (83 per cup), that same cup also offers 280% of the daily requirement for beta carotene (32 milligrams) and 43% of the recommended daily amount (RDA) for iron.
Some ways to add pumpkin/winter squash into your food:
1. Add chunks into chili
2. Thin canned pumpkin into a soup with broth; season with salt and a dash of cinnamon; and heat; stir in a bit of reduced-fat sour cream and top with roasted pumpkin seeds
3. Stir in pumpkin puree into tomato-based pasta sauces
4. Add minced chipotle peppers, toasted cumin, lime juice, and minced cilantro into pumpkin puree and serve as a dip with tortilla chips
5. Cook squash halves, pierced in several locations to allow steam to escape, at 350 degree F. for 45-60 minutes; top with butter and maple syrup or brown sugar
6. Substitute spaghetti squash for the pasta by baking/steaming it for 30-45 minutes until the rind is soft; cut lengthwise and remove the strands; serve with sauce
7. Mash pumpkin or other squashes (acorn or butternut, etc.) and eat as such or add in bread, cake, muffin and pie recipes
8. Combine pureed, cooked winter squash with applesauce and serve alone as a pudding-like desert; or a topping for pancakes, waffles, and oatmeal (I’ve also added pumpkin into pancake/waffle recipes)
Be creative and enjoy the harvest season!
Information taken from:
1. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. Murray, Michael, N.D.; Pizzorno, Joseph, N.D.; and Pizzorno, Lara, M.A., L.M.T. Atria Books, New York, NY, 2005; p. 234-236.
2. Welness Foods A to Z: An indispensable guide for health-conscious food lovers. Margen, Sheldon, M.D.; and the editors of the U.C. Berkeley Wellness Letters. Rebus, New York, NY, 2002; p. 494-496.