By Benjamin Goodin
If you’ve ever watched your jack-o’-lanterns slowly deflate into a soupy mess on your front stoop, you’ve probably wondered what use they could be put to in the time between them being used as a one-night decoration and when most of them disappear into holiday pastries. Other than looking festive on hay bales outside your local grocer, pumpkins tend to go seriously overlooked given their dietary benefits and flexibility.
Pumpkins, technically squashes, were a staple in the diet of many Native Americans; they are one of the “Three Sisters” crops of traditional native agriculture. The other two sisters were beans and corn, and were co-cultivated in a manner where each crop supported the growth and health of the others, and you thought modern environmentalism invented “sustainable agriculture.” Other than being resilient and plentiful, there were a great number of reasons that some native peoples relied on pumpkin and other squashes as a mainstay of their diet.
Gourds, and pumpkins specifically, are a dietary powerhouse. Just one cup of pumpkin flesh is packed with more potassium than a banana, about 20 percent of your daily intake of vitamin C, and 4.9 mg of Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. That same cup only has about 50 calories, 2.5 sugars, 12 carbs, and 11 percent of your daily fiber intake. On top of that, pumpkin contains no cholesterol, fats, or starch. Pumpkins are also one of the vegetables with the highest vitamin A (beta-carotene) content; that same single-cup serving packs a whopping 245 percent of the daily value of beta-carotene, which is something of a cure-all when it comes to common medical conditions. Vitamin A promotes healthy vision and blood pressure, helps to manage hunger, and lowers the risk of colon and prostate cancers.
Most of us are well aware of pumpkin’s use as a popular fall pie filling, in soups, and fall-themed coffeehouse baked goods. However, the gourd has been rediscovered and repurposed in our new age of healthy eating — contemporary cooks have been creating a wide breadth of pumpkin-infused dishes. Chunked pumpkin flesh is a great seasonal addition in many stews, sautéed vegetable dishes, and a number of baked pastas. Pumpkin puree can be used in all sorts of fluffy, savory baked goods, but it is also seeing use as a low-cholesterol butter and oil substitute (use ¾ of a cup of pumpkin puree for each cup of butter and use the exact amount when substituting for oil). I’ve even seen it used as hummus. Pumpkin is also great for your pooches; mine devour it unblinkingly. If you are looking to try out pumpkin for variety or health and don’t want to break out the food processor, make sure that you pick up canned pumpkin puree; canned pumpkin pie filling contains added oils and syrups in addition to the pulped flesh.
Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas (from the Latin name for its genus, cucurbita pepo) have seen renewed interest recently. They carry most of the same benefits as pumpkin flesh, but in a much smaller package. You can find bags of roasted, raw, salted, and unsalted varieties in health food stores, baking aisles, and in the bulk bins of grocery stores. Although the roasted and salted variety is by far the most popular use of the seeds, they are starting to appear in trail mixes and breakfast cereals, as well being used as a gluten-free flour after grinding (which I am given to understand is amazing in chocolate-based baked goods).
So, it seems that pumpkins are not only healthy and delicious, but they are incredibly useful and cheap, unless you ordered that five-dollar latte. If you’ve been following me so far, I’ve mentioned how you can make use for everything but the skins and the stem of the plant. I’m a utilitarian, so I got interested if there were uses for the remaining anatomy of the ribbed gourd; there are! Pumpkin skin may seem better suited for mimicking the properties of a basketball, but apparently, it makes some dang delicious chips (the recipe for which is on the next page). The vine stem however, has yet to find a use.
Photo credit: Denise Torres/AdobeStock
- Preheat oven to 400° F
- Skin the squash. Carefully cut the skin off the pumpkin into long, thin slices — as thin as you can manage.
- Add skins to a large bowl, sprinkle liberally with Kosher salt and toss well. Let sit for 10 minutes before baking to allow the salt to draw out some of the moisture in the raw pumpkin crisps.
- Add a small amount of extra virgin olive oil. (optional — add a drop of sesame oil) and toss well. Better to add less oil than more.
- You want the pieces barely coated.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes on the top rack (one rack below broiler level).
- Serve alone, alongside soup or with your favorite dip, e.g., lemon juice, olive oil, and crushed garlic.
Recipe courtesy of Cindy Rajhel, curator of the Home Grown Fun website (homegrownfun.com). Full electronic text of the recipe, and a few other clever uses for pumpkin can be found at homegrownfun.com/how-to-make-pumpkin-crisps-fries-roasted-seeds-and-smores/.