It’s All About the Food: Pumpkin and Winter Squash

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by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist

As the leaves begin to change and nights grow chilly, it’s hard not to think about the harvesting of glorious pumpkins and winter squash. We are now entering the season of these nutritious and delicious gourd vegetables! Pumpkins and winter squash are members of the same family, the cucurbits. The word pumpkin is derived from the word “pepon” in the Greek language, which is the word for “large melon,” and as we all know, pumpkins are round and can be very large, like certain kinds of melon. The word was modified by the French to “pompon” and then was changed to “pumpion”
by the British and later referred to as pumpkin by American colonists. Neither of these members of the cucurbit family are grown or harvested in the winter; many of them can be stored over a few winter months, and only under the right conditions.

Both winter squash and pumpkins played an important role in our diet in this country long before Europeans arrived. They were a mainstay of Native Americans through the harsh winters when food was scarce. Native Americans buried their dead with winter squash to provide them with nourishment on their final journey. Winter squash and pumpkin originally developed back in the South and Central American area 9,000 to 10,000 years ago. Initially they were cultivated specifically for their seeds since the earliest varieties had little flesh, which was bitter anyway. Later with cultivation, squash and pumpkin varieties expanded significantly, and to this day many more are available. They have a rich texture and provide much sweeter flesh. Some of the most common varieties of winter squash found locally are butternut, Hubbard, acorn, delicata, sweet dumpling, spaghetti, turban, and kabocha. Pumpkins also come in many varieties these days, with a couple favorites being Fairytale, Cinderella, and Sugar Pie. Each squash and pumpkin has its own specific flavor, shape, and texture. In regard to nutrient content, they are very rich sources of vitamin A—pumpkin actually surpasses many other varieties of winter squash in their vitamin A content. They also contain a whopping amount of the antioxidants called carotenoids including alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, and zeaxanthin.  Both members of this family also contribute a good supply of potassium, manganese, and fiber, as well as some B-vitamins and vitamin C.

This multitude of nutrients provide cucurbits with many health-enhancing properties for the body, including anti-cancer, eye, skin, and cardiac benefits. They also give a boost to the immune system, a key system to support as cold weather approaches.

When purchasing winter squash or pumpkins, choose ones that are firm, without any soft spots unless you plan to prepare it within a few days. If you have a large supply from the garden, store them in a cool dry place away from the light with an average temperature of 50 degrees. Harder squash such as butternut will hold for longer periods of time (often 6 to 8 months). Softer squash such as delicata or spaghetti generally stores well for only a few months. Sugar pie pumpkins can be kept in a cool dry place usually through the end of November and perhaps through December, but other varieties of pumpkins will last longer so check them out with your local farmers. Pumpkins can be cooked and frozen for later use in baked goods, soups, and pies. Let us not forget the seeds of many squash and pumpkins that can be roasted and consumed. Pumpkin seeds especially are a delicious treat! They can be removed from the pumpkin and cleaned, then toasted with a small amount of oil and salt, if desired, in a slow oven, (250°F. to 300°F.), for about 10 to 20 minutes. If they turn dark they will become bitter so be careful to not let them toast for too long and to stir them while they are baking. Pumpkin seeds are a good source of essential fatty acids as well as protein. Additional foods that can be prepared with squash and pumpkin are smoothies, lasagna, yeast breads, and a favorite Vermont specialty: pancakes, with our own maple syrup. Also, enjoy peeled and cubed winter squash roasted with other root vegetables in a slow oven for about an hour until tender. Bake squash such as kabocha, Hubbard, acorn, and sweet dumpling in a slow oven for about 45 minutes or until tender and serve drizzled with a little local honey or maple syrup. Don’t forget to enjoy spaghetti squash, which after being cooked can be removed from the shell using a fork, producing spaghetti-like strands.

Don’t miss out on the rich nutrients and delicious taste of these benevolent versatile cold weather cucurbits this fall.

Be sure to try our Curried Pumpkin Soup!