Keep that pumpkin comin’

As the holidays approach, it’s time to think about using up the last pumpkins gathered from the garden and turning them into everyone’s favorite pies. Combined with some traditional pie spices, such as clove, cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg, the pumpkin pie is a traditional comfort food, with the smell and taste bringing back warm and wonderful memories of holidays past.

This year, though, you might have trouble working up much enthusiasm for this holiday delicacy. Pumpkin overload is the problem. For the past month, many of us have succumbed to the marketing hype about all things pumpkin. We’ve been drinking pumpkin lattes and pumpkin beer. We’ve eaten pumpkin pop tarts, pumpkin doughnuts, pumpkin tortilla chips, pumpkin waffles and pumpkin muffins. That’s not even the half of it when it comes to all the foods and drinks labeled as pumpkin-this or pumpkin-that on grocery store shelves. Did you know there’s such a thing as pumpkin vodka? How about pumpkin Pringles, pumpkin Oreos, pumpkin chewing gum, pumpkin butter, pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin spiced Peeps?

Marketers say they’re just giving people what they want. Pumpkin is associated with fall and, apparently, we love the rituals associated with baking (and eating and drinking) pumpkin products. According to a 2014 story about the pumpkin craze, Dunkin’ Donuts uses about 100 million pounds of pumpkin puree each fall. According to estimates by market research firms, Americans spent more than $15 million on pumpkin-flavored beers last year.

But just because pumpkin lattes and pumpkin muffins are a big hit at Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t mean we want to be eating pumpkin Pringles. Of course, no one is being forced to indulge in any of these pumpkin spinoffs. But they are still as much of an assault on the senses as Christmas displays before Halloween.

Still, it would be sensible, health-wise, to make peace with the ubiquitous pumpkin. Ironically, it is a powerhouse when it comes to nutrition. Athletes especially would be wise to take heed of its many benefits. According to nutrition experts, pumpkin has anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it a good post-workout snack. A serving of pumpkin also has as much fiber as two slices of whole wheat bread, so it’s a great way to fill up and get the fiber you need. By itself, pumpkin is low in calories but high in Vitamin A, (about 200 percent of the recommended daily intake), and also provides 20 percent of your vitamin C. A cup of pumpkin puree has more potassium than a banana and about 30 percent of the magnesium you need each day.

Pumpkin also contains lutein, an antioxidant that is supposed to help prevent eye problems associated with aging (such as cataracts). It may even slow the development of macular degeneration.

Pumpkin is also rich in trytophan, an amino acid that gets converted to serotonin. Tryptophan is the substance associated with turkey and that post-Thanksgiving-feast need to nap. Because of the serotonin connection, pumpkin also has been touted as a tool in reducing the risk of depression.

That’s not all. In scientific tests, pumpkin has been shown to improve glucose tolerance and increase the amount of insulin the body produces. As with any food high in beta-carotene, pumpkin is also thought to be a free-radical fighter at the cellular level.

One very surprising use of pumpkin, according to Allison Czarnecki, founder and editor of Petit Elefant, a blog all about style on a budget, is its use as an all-natural face mask. All you need is a quarter of a cup of pureed pumpkin (not pumpkin pie), an egg, a tablespoon of honey and a tablespoon of milk. Mix, then apply it, wait for 20 minutes or so and wash it off with warm water.

But back to food, if you’re tired of the smell or taste of pumpkin products, you could always try a seasonal spinoff without the sweetness. A serving of roasted pumpkin seeds has 5-6 grams of protein, making them a great post-workout snack or a filler-upper between meals.

The hardest thing about roasting pumpkin seeds is separating the stringy, fibrous strands of pulp from the seeds. It helps to put them into a strainer and run water through them while discarding the pulp as it comes loose. Some people recommend soaking the seeds in salt water overnight before roasting. Supposedly it improves the flavor and de-activates enzyme inhibitors that can irritate your stomach and also improves the vitamin content. Go figure.

Once you’ve towel-dried the seeds, you can season them any way you like. You can use the typical spices, such as sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, but some savory variations include garlic powder, chili powder or curry. Every cup of seeds should be tossed and coated with a tablespoon of olive oil. Then, you need to lay them out flat on a baking sheet to roast. You can broil for 10 minutes, bake for 25-30 minutes at 325 degrees, or microwave for 1 to 2 minutes. The result is a pumpkin product that won’t make you feel like you’re on pumpkin overload, while delivering some of the benefits of this autumnal treat.

You also can sprinkle roasted pumpkin seeds on the accompanying recipe, from Kamasouptra in Portland and South Portland. (The recipe first appeared in this space in December 2010).

Recipe: Spiced Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Soup
Serves 6-8

1 small cooking pumpkin
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled
4 cups vegetable stock or water
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon mild curry powder
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 sprigs thyme, leaves removed
4 tablespoons canola oil
Juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the pumpkin in half from top to bottom. Scoop out the seeds and save for roasting, or discard. Lightly coat the pumpkin inside and out with oil. Next, mix together the thyme and all of the dried spices in a medium sized mixing bowl with 11?2 tablespoons oil. Add the chopped sweet potato and toss until evenly coated. Place the pumpkin and sweet potatoes onto a non-stick baking sheet and roast for approximately 25 minutes or until everything is tender. Once the pumpkin and potatoes are in the oven, turn a 6-quart stockpot on high and add 11?2 tablespoons oil. When oil is shimmering, add the onions and garlic, stirring enough to coat with the oil. When the onions begin to caramelize, reduce the heat to medium, stir every few minutes being careful not to scorch the bottom.

Once the pumpkin and potatoes are tender, remove them from the oven and add the sweet potatoes to the onions and garlic immediately followed by the 4 cups of water. Allow the pumpkin to cool until it can be handled. Once cool, scoop the meat of the pumpkin from the skin and add to the pot. Bring the pot up to a boil and reduce the heat to a simmer for about 15 minutes stirring every few minutes. Remove some of the cooking liquid and reserve. Purée the rest of the soup in a blender or food processor working in batches, adding enough of the reserved liquid to allow soup to blend. Once all the soup is puréed, mix it all together with the lemon juice and season with salt to your liking. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and some freshly grated nutmeg.

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