Pumpkin power

If you’re like most Americans who enjoy pumpkin only a couple of times a year in the form of a Thanksgiving pie or carving a jack-o’-lantern, you are missing out on a nutritional and culinary treat. Pumpkins are considered more of a staple crop than holiday novelty in some areas of Latin America and the Caribbean, where the flesh is commonly used in soups, stews, or sliced and roasted. The seeds also are delicious and provide many valuable nutrients.

Pumpkins belong to the Cucurbita genus, the vegetable family that includes all varieties of squash and gourds, which is native to the Americas. They prefer well-drained, sandy loams with pH range 6.5-7.5. Pumpkins are susceptible to the same diseases as squash and do not tolerate heavy, soggy soils.

According to Tufts University, 80 percent of the U.S. pumpkin supply is available in October. Commercial growers plant pumpkins in June or July for a fall harvest to meet demand for the holidays. For an earlier harvest, seeds can be sown as soon as the soil temperatures reach the 60s — usually late April/early May in our area. Most varieties require 75-100 days before harvesting.

You have probably noticed that the large decorative pumpkin varieties, such as Jack-o’-lantern or Big Max, have stringy flesh that is not too appetizing. Although edible, decorative pumpkins will not offer the best flavor or texture. If you are choosing pumpkins for the table instead of the porch steps, choose a suitable variety like Small Sugar or Lady Godiva, which provides seeds without the tough outer hull. Eating pumpkins tend to be smaller — about the size of a cantaloupe, weighing 2 to 5 pounds — and may be labeled as “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins. Pick pumpkins that are firm and heavy for their size, with a deep orange color. A healthy, undamaged pumpkin will store well up to two months in a cool, dry location.

The bright orange color of pumpkin flesh indicates that it is a rich source of the powerful antioxidant, beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is one of the plant carotenoids converted to vitamin A in the body, which performs many important functions in vision and overall health. Pumpkin is a good source of potassium and fiber (both often lacking in Americans’ diets), while providing vitamin C and several minerals.

The seeds are often dried and/or roasted and enjoyed as a snack food. Pumpkin seeds add a great crunch to salads and may be sprinkled on rice dishes or sautéed vegetables. Ground pumpkin seeds can be added to salad dressings, casseroles or baked goods.

You can cut the pumpkin into smaller cubes for faster cooking, roasting along with onions and other vegetables or incorporating into chilis and stews. Puréed in a blender or food processor, pumpkin becomes a base for soup, waffles, pancakes, quick breads or muffins.

For more information on growing or preparing pumpkins, please contact your local Extension office.