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Vegetable Feature: Pumpkin

When it comes to cool weather vegetables, it’s hard to think of one more classic than pumpkin. We carve pumpkins for Halloween, we eat pumpkin pie at holiday feasts, and we may even drink a pumpkin latte here and there throughout the winter. But pumpkin is not only for dessert and sweet drinks. It’s actually quite a healthful vegetable when it’s not combined with lots of sugar.

That deep-orange color of pumpkin flesh is due to its natural stores of beta-carotene, an antioxidant that the body also uses to make vitamin A. A one-cup serving of pumpkin supplies:

  • 245% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin A, necessary for healthy vision, immune strength, and the integrity of skin and mucous membranes
  • 19% of the DV for vitamin C, which also aids immune function and is needed for the health of connective tissue
  • 10% of the DV for vitamin E, a third vitamin that supports immune health and is also important for making red blood cells  
  • 16% of the DV for potassium, an electrolyte that maintains fluid balance in cells and is critical to a healthy heart
  • 3 grams of fiber, which is necessary for normal digestion and elimination and reduces the risk of heart disease
  • And just 49 calories!

It’s not just pumpkin flesh that’s good for you. Pumpkin seeds are also nutritionally dense, containing manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, zinc, iron, protein, and healthy unsaturated fat. Among their beneficial components is the amino acid tryptophan, which helps produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and is associated with a positive outlook. They also contain phytosterols, which have been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.

If you’re like me, you might be a little intimidated by purchasing and cooking an entire pumpkin. But apparently, it’s not as scary as it seems. Just pull out a big serrated knife and a bigger cutting board and cut the pumpkin into quarters. Then scoop out the seeds (and set aside for later), place quarters in glass baking dish with ¼ inch of water, and cook uncovered at 300 degrees for about an hour.

Here are some ideas for what to do with your cooked pumpkin:

  • Simply drizzle the slices with butter and serve
  • Throw chunks into a soup with kale and sausage (if you’re vegetarian, substitute white beans for sausage)
  • Scoop into a food processor, add sautéed onion, garlic, parsley, and Parmesan cheese, and puree to create a delicious sauce for whole-wheat pasta

Another fun pumpkin recipe comes from Mollie Katzen’s cookbook, The Enchanted Broccoli Forrest. It’s a soup, cooked in a pumpkin shell.

And it wouldn’t be a pumpkin article without mentioning pumpkin pie. Try this low-sugar version at your holiday gathering this year.

Finally, don’t forget those seeds you set aside. To enjoy their nutrition-packed goodness, all you need to do is clean them, let them dry overnight, and then roast them. Roasting at 160-170 degrees for only 15-20 minutes will help preserve the healthy fats. You can eat home-roasted pumpkin seeds with the shell on; this increases their zinc content. You can also buy green pumpkin seeds, often called pepitas, year round. I like pumpkin seeds by themselves with a little salt, sprinkled on a salad, or cooked into homemade granola. They’re also delicious in a warm bowl of oatmeal.

What’s your favorite way to eat pumpkin or pumpkin seeds?

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