FROM PHIL LEMPERT, SUPERMARKET GURU
A staple in the diets of Native Americans long before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, pumpkins have come to signify the arrival of the fall harvest and the advent of the Halloween season. Besides the huge nutritional punch pumpkins and their seeds provide, here and five things you need to know.
Deriving its name from “pepon,” the Greek word for large melon, pumpkins are believed to have been first cultivated in Mesoamerica. Some seeds from related plants date back to 5000 B.C. when Spanish and Portuguese explorers carried the seeds of pumpkins back to Europe. Nutty, chewy and sweet, pumpkins have been used as holiday lanterns since the late 1800s when the Halloween pumpkin craze really took off.
Pumpkins take anywhere from 65 to 200 days to mature, depending on variety. There are hundreds of varieties, though all pumpkins belong to the genus Cucurbita. Most pumpkins belong to one of three species: Cucurbita moschata – which includes the tan-colored commercial pumpkins used mostly for canning, Cucurbita pepo – which includes the medium-sized pumpkins used for jack-o-lanterns, and Cucurbita maxima – which includes the giant pumpkins often found in festivals and pumpkin-growing competitions.
One variety, called Orange Smoothie, is bred for its extremely smooth skin and small size, making it ideal for small children to decorate. Another variety, Snackjack, is bred for its high production of seeds without shells. That makes them better for toasting, of course.
Pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, are flat, dark green and very nutritious. They are a good source of iron, zinc and essential fatty acids. Some are encased in a yellow-white husk, although some varieties of pumpkins produce seeds without shells. Pumpkin seeds should be stored in an airtight, preferably opaque container in the refrigerator. While they may stay edible for several months, they seem to lose their peak freshness after about one to two months.
The carotene pigments that give pumpkins their signature orange color are being studied for their potential prostate benefits. One cup of cooked mashed pumping provides over 14,000 IU of vitamin A precursors. In addition to being a huge immune booster, long-term clinical studies have shown vitamin A to be useful in preventing age-related macular degeneration. In addition, the large carbohydrate content in pumpkin is unique, as many of the carbs come from polysaccharides found in the cell walls. An increasing number of studies demonstrate that these starch-related components have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, as well as anti-diabetic and insulin-regulating properties. Therefore a pumpkin centric dinner could benefit all systems of the body!