Beyond pumpkin pie: Gourds good for variety of fall recipes

September 30, 2013

Earlier this week, the Cancer Support Community invited me to present a cooking demonstration. In keeping with the arrival of autumn and to focus on cancer-preventing foods, it was easy to choose a topic: pumpkins. Packed with the antioxidants alpha-carotene and beta-carotene, pumpkins help boost the immune system and block the growth of potentially cancerous cells.

Pumpkins and their cousins - cantaloupe, watermelon, cucumber and squash - all belong to the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family. Each of these vegetables has a colorful outer skin (of varying thickness) and inner flesh that encases seeds and pith at the center. Pumpkin seeds are known as pepitas, and their inner green heart makes a nutritious snack after being cleaned, dried, roasted and shelled.

Pumpkins originated in the Americas and have been a celebrated food of native cultures for thousands of years. The flesh of the pumpkin is an excellent source of dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, while the seeds have been noted for their medicinal properties as early as the time of the Aztecs. Pumpkin and its seeds have become familiar ingredients as culinary traditions evolved around the Mediterranean and throughout India and Asia.

While we associate pumpkins with carved faces for Halloween, the best pumpkin for making into a front porch decoration is not the best type for eating. The most desirable cooking pumpkin is usually labeled as a “pie pumpkin” and is much smaller than a carving pumpkin.

Pie pumpkins have a more uniform round shape and deep orange color with smoother skin. The taste of pie pumpkins is among the sweetest of varieties, as their sugar content is quite high. Their tender flesh softens quickly when baked, and the skin separates readily from the cooked interior. Newer pumpkin cultivars developed specifically for cooking include the Small Sugar, Baby Pam and Autumn Gold.

When choosing a pumpkin for cooking, look for uniform color and an exterior without bruises or blemishes. The skin should have an almost matte quality to its color; shinier skin is a sign the pumpkin was picked too early. Once you select your perfect pumpkin, store it in a cool, dry place away from other fruits and vegetables. You don’t want to keep it at a temperature above 70 degrees, or it may begin to soften. You can also store a pie pumpkin in the refrigerator for up to two months.

Now that you have a pumpkin to cook, how do you start? If you don’t care to harvest the seeds, simply place the pumpkin on a foil-lined cookie sheet, stab a few slits in the rind so it won’t explode and bake at 400 F until tender, about 40 minutes.

Once it’s cool enough to handle, the skin will easily peel off and the tender flesh can be separated from the seeds.

The cooked pumpkin purée can be used immediately or stored in the freezer for up to one year. A novel way to add texture and nutrition to other dishes is to freeze the pulp in an ice cube tray and pop a cube of frozen pumpkin into a pot of tomato sauce or vegetable soup. Another use for those orange cubes is to throw them into a smoothie or blended protein shake.

I’ve included a few recipes for your pumpkin purée, starting with the savory soup in the photo. You can increase the spicy heat with cumin or chili powder and add a seafood surprise with a dollop of lump crabmeat for garnish. The slightly sweet soup can be made even more so by substituting apple cider or orange juice for the broth. The muffin recipe is very low fat and not at all sweet; you can stir in raisins or craisins to satisfy your sweet tooth. Or you can bake them this way and wait until Halloween for sweets.

Sweet Pumpkin Soup

1 pie pumpkin
1 t olive oil
1 diced onion
1 tart apple, peeled & diced
1 minced garlic clove
3 C vegetable stock
1/2 C buttermilk (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste
grated nutmeg or curry

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut pumpkin in half, remove the seeds, place cut side down on a foil-lined baking pan and bake until tender, about 40 minutes. When cool enough to handle, scoop out flesh and reserve; discard skin. Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir in onions and apples; sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Pour in the stock and add the pumpkin, mashing with the back of a wooden spoon. Bring almost to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Using an immersion blender or food processor, purée the soup until creamy. Stir in buttermilk, if desired, and cook until heated through. Add salt and pepper to taste and garnish with grated nutmeg or curry. Yield: 4 servings

Savory Pumpkin Soup

4 C vegetable broth
4 C pumpkin purée
1 chopped onion
2 minced garlic cloves
1 t fresh thyme
1/4 t cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper, to taste
paprika for garnish

In large pot over medium-high heat combine 3 cups broth, pumpkin, onion, garlic, thyme, cayenne, salt and pepper. Bring to boil, then reduce to low and simmer uncovered for 20 minutes.

Purée the mixture until smooth, using an immersion blender or food processor. Thin with remaining broth, if needed. Sprinkle with paprika to garnish.

Pumpkin Oatmeal Muffins

1 1/2 C flour
1 C rolled oats
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
2 t pumpkin pie spice
1/4 t salt
1/3 C brown sugar
2 egg whites, slightly beaten
2/3 C unsweetened almond milk
1 C pumpkin purée
1/3 C applesauce
1/2 ripe banana, mashed

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine flour, oatmeal, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In a large bowl combine pumpkin, mashed banana, brown sugar, almond milk, egg whites and applesauce. Add the flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture and stir gently, just until combined. Ladle batter into prepared pan. Bake until a cake tester comes out clean, about 25 minutes.

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