Healthy Eating

Pumpkin Power

Pump up the nutritional content and flavor of soups, gratins, and ravioli with this bright orange gourd.
Pumpkin Power
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Have you ever stood in the middle of a pumpkin patch and wondered, "Are these things good for anything besides carving up at Halloween?" If you're thinking, "they must be," you're right. People like Sarah Krieger, R.D., of the American Dietetic Association, who know how to pick and cook the bright orange gourd, infuse yogurts, dips, and breads with pumpkin's distinctive flavor year round. Krieger, an ardent pumpkin proponent, says it's more than just the flavor that stokes her passion. "Pumpkins are so high in vitamin A, they actually offer 50 percent more than carrots," she says. They're also a great source of fiber and potassium (a mineral that helps regulate the proper functioning of smooth muscles, like those found in the heart), and naturally low in calories, fat, and salt—a half cup of fresh mashed pumpkin has just 25 calories and less than half a gram of fat.

If the thought of creating anything out of the stringy, watery stuff you scoop out of a jack–o'–lantern makes you wince, consider this: The aptly named Jack–O'–Lantern variety is better for carving than cooking, and canned pumpkin is almost as good as fresh. Pumpkins at the store are often weeks past their prime, whereas canned pumpkin is processed right in the field—and often has no additives.

If you prefer working with fresh pumpkins, Dan Barber, chef at Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., proposes a compromise: Go to a farmers' market or farm stand and find the freshest pumpkin you can, and make your own purée.

Bake the pumpkin at 200°F for two hours then leave it out to dry overnight. In the morning, make a big batch of pumpkin purée, and freeze it for use all year. "If you do it once, you will never go back to canned," he says.

In a country where you can get nearly anything delivered to your doorstep overnight, the pumpkin is an anomaly. It's a truly seasonal food—you simply can't find a whole fresh pumpkin in the U.S. in, say, April. You've got to wait till harvest time—roughly from September to late November—to savor the sweet, nutty flavor of a pumpkin plucked straight from the vine. Look for gourds that feel heavy for their size, have a stem attached, are free of blemishes, and have dull, not shiny skins. The tastiest varieties are Sugar, Winter Luxury, or Dickinson, and the smaller the fruit (two to four pounds is ideal) the sweeter and more tender the flesh will be.

Come October, grocery stores, espresso bars, and even gas stations seem to overflow with pumpkin–themed foods. Here, the best natural choices, made with fresh pumpkin:

  • Pumpkin ale. Brewers have been adding pumpkin purée to their autumn mash since colonial days.
  • Pumpkin yogurt. Throughout the fall, supermarket brands offer yogurts flavored with pumpkin and spices.
  • Pumpkin purée. One hundred percent pumpkin purée, with no added salt, sugar, or preservatives, is a good off-season choice for ravioli and pies. We recommend Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market 365 brands.
  • Pepitas. This handy, satisfying snack is loaded with vitamins K and B6, magnesium, and essential fatty acids. Look for tender, green, hulled seeds.
  • Pumpkin ice cream. The window of indulgence for pumpkin ice creams, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, is small—usually September through November.
  • Pumpkin seed oil. This nearly black, intensely flavored oil is delicious drizzled over salads or steamed vegetables.