Versatile pumpkins offer endless possibilities, not just pie

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fall gourd-fruit combo can be grown in back yard

Along with drinking apple cider, pumpkin spice lattes and jumping in leaf piles, fall would not be fall without carving a pumpkin and roasting pumpkin seeds.

But, what most do not know is just how versatile pumpkins, which are in the gourd family, really are.

"There's something about buying pumpkins that says we're into fall," said Shon Bishop, small farms specialist with the Barry County Extension office. "They have a sort of a romanticized view because they do symbolize fall. If talking about the gourd family, you can do everything from making bird houses for wildlife habitat to jack-o-lanterns to eating them, so they are very versatile.

"Pumpkins are not only about pie. They are considered a winter squash, so you can get the meat out of any species and put that in the microwave or oven and there are all sorts of online guides for that."

Pumpkins also considered a fruit, says Bishop, because they have seeds.

"There is always a grey area when we begin to distinguish between a fruit and a veggie, much like tomatoes," he said. "But they do possess their own seeds and have an annual life cycle."

Baking Pumpkins

There are different varieties of pumpkins, Bishop said, such as the jack-o-lantern variety, baking varieties and novel ones like the white luminous pumpkin.

"Some species are specifically bred to have a lot of meat in them for that purpose," he said. "For many of us that go to the store and buy those cans of pumpkin, those are usually from a gourd. It's the same botanical species, just not the jack-o-lantern pumpkin variety. That variety will make pumpkin pie, but it's a little more tricky. My dear grandmother has said, 'Dear, it's not worth it, go to the store and buy it.'"

Lots of farms in the area offer the baking variety pumpkins, Bishop said, for those adventurous enough to make pumpkin pie from scratch.

"The innards of their fruit are a little different when you take them home and carve them," he said. "Googling southwest Missouri pumpkin patches or corn mazes on Facebook will bring those up."

Pam Duitsman, Extension nutrition and health specialist, agrees the possible uses of pumpkin are "endless."

Besides just pie, pumpkins can be served as a side dish, in breads, cakes, desserts, muffins and custards. It can also be substituted for winter squash or sweet potatoes in recipes, and seeds can be roasted.

For cooking, choose a smaller, heavier pumpkin between five to seven pounds.

"Choose a pumpkin that has at least a one inch stem firmly attached, and that is free from soft spots or damage," Duitsman said. "It should feel firm and have a consistent color."

Cooking Instructions

After removing seeds and the stringy material, cut the flesh of the pumpkin into wedges or halves.

"Once you cut the pumpkin open, you must cook it right away," Duitsman said.

To boil: Place the wedges in a large pot with enough water to cover the pumpkin. Bring the water to a boil, cover, reduce heat and let simmer. Cook until it can be pierced easily with a fork. Drain and cool. Peel the flesh from the skin.

For oven baking, place the pumpkin halves on a baking sheet and bake at 350 F for 1 to 1.5 hours, or until flesh is tender when pierced with a fork. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh.

For every pound of whole pumpkin, expect to get about one cup of pumpkin puree.

Pumpkins are also nutritious.

"The color of the pumpkin is an excellent source of carotenoids, including beta-carotene that the body converts into vitamin A," Duitsman said.

The beneficial phytochemicals that help prevent disease in half a cup of cooked pumpkin equate to over 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, also supplying vitamin C and fiber.

Roasting Seeds

Roasting seeds is a fun family activity and make a nutritious snack.

Wash seeds in warm water, and spread them out to dry. Toss in a little oil or spray a shallow baking sheet with oil and spread in a single layer. Bake at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Salt if desired, and cool.

"Roasted pumpkin seeds make a terrific energy snack," Duitsman said. "They are a great source of protein, minerals, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids."

Seeds can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. If kept longer than 10 to 14 days, place in the freezer.

Growing Pumpkins

Because pumpkins are fairly easy to grow, beware of where seeds are thrown, unless a personal pumpkin patch is the goal.

"If you put the seeds in your compost pile or garden patch, they are viable and will grow," Bishop said. "They are a beautiful plant, and can be a source of a lot of entertainment and learning. It's a wonderful thing for families and children to experience."

To intentionally grow pumpkins, Bishop advised starting the end of June or beginning of July.

"You want them about four feet apart," said Bishop. "Mound up the soil like you would on a like a cucumber or squash, and sow the seed into the mound."

A Little Jack-O-Lantern History

The long-held family tradition of carving faces into pumpkins started in Europe.

"For 'All Hallows Eve' in Europe, grotesque faces were carved into hollowed-out turnips with a candle set inside," said Tammy Roberts, Extension nutrition and health education specialist. "For whatever reason, that morphed into a pumpkin in the United States."

Pumpkins were a food source for Native Americans before early European settlers arrived in North America, and have been grown in the Americas for 5,000 years, she said.

Trinklein agrees pumpkins have many more uses besides just a holiday decoration.

"I would be willing to venture that 99 percent of all pumpkins never see the inside of an oven," she said. "They're just discarded, which is a real shame."

For recipe ideas, visit the extension at www.missouri.edu.

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