Perks From The Pumpkin Patch
These decorative orbs are nutritional powerhouses

By Mitchell Clute

Each October, 80 percent of the nation's annual pumpkin crop comes to market. Not surprisingly, the majority of these orange orbs end up as decorative jack-o'-lanterns in celebration of Halloween. But if you think that pumpkins are only good for carving—and perhaps an occasional pie—you may want to reconsider.

Pumpkins are both versatile vegetables and nutritional powerhouses. Members of the family Cucurbita, which also contains squash and cucumbers, pumpkins come in a hodge-podge of shapes and sizes, ranging from less than a pound to more than a thousand pounds. Believed to have originated in Central America, their seeds have been found in archeological sites in Mexico dating back 7,000 years, proof that people were eating pumpkins long before the first jack-o'-lantern was carved.

Though the Autumn Gold and Sugar varieties are the most popular among growers, there are dozens of pumpkins, including Baby Bear, Spooktacular, Frosty, Funny Face, Harvest Moon, Happy Jack, Ghost Rider and Jack-o'-lantern Spirit. Keep in mind, though, that a good carving pumpkin makes a poor eating pumpkin. Smaller varieties such as Sugar pumpkins are the best choice for recipes because they have sweet, smooth-textured, nearly stringless flesh. There are also dozens of other culinary varieties that can be grown from heirloom seeds, including the Jack-Be-Little variety, delicious hollowed out and stuffed like a pepper, and New England Pie pumpkins, perfect for baking.

Vitamin-packed Flesh
Most pumpkins are bright orange as a result of high levels of carotenoids, natural precursors to vitamin A. "They're particularly rich in alpha carotene, which has powerful anti-cancer properties—at least in cell-culture experiments," says Melissa Diane Smith, a licensed nutritionist based in Tucson, Ariz. "They're also high in beta carotene, which also seems to be protective against cancer, so [people who eat pumpkin] are getting double duty on the cancer front. I'd add it to the diet as much as possible for a natural source of carotenoids."

In fact, one cup of cooked pumpkin contains 2,650 IU of vitamin A, exceeding the recommended daily allowance of that nutrient for women. But alpha carotene and beta carotene are only the most obvious nutrients found in the humble pumpkin. "It is also a fairly good source of lutein and ziazanthin, which are helpful in protecting against macular degeneration," Smith says.

Pumpkin contains the antioxidant vitamin C and is also high in potassium. As if that weren't enough, a one-cup serving also contains at least 3 grams of heart-healthy fiber.

But getting pumpkin into the diet doesn't have to mean eating pie every day. In fact, there are few vegetables more versatile than pumpkin. Michael Krondl, author of the Great Little Pumpkin Cookbook (Celestial Arts Publishing, 1999), offers numerous options. "To many people's surprise, pumpkin is cooked in more guises in other parts of the world, in spite of the fact that they originated in the Americas," Krondl says. In the south of France, pumpkins are often served as a gratin with cheese and butter. Other uncommon uses for pumpkin, Krondl says, include adding it to pork stews or cooking it with Indian spices, as well as making "various custardy things" such as flans.

Because in this country pumpkins are so closely associated with the holidays, they can be difficult to find the rest of the year. "Home cooks haven't discovered it, and I'm not entirely sure why," Krondl says. "But butternut squash, which was developed from a kind of pumpkin, can almost always be used as a substitute."

Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer, a musician and an avid home chef.