Walking to work on this brisk September morning, I did a little dance (in my head) when I spied pumpkins outside my local fruit and vegetable market. Nothing screams fall to me like pumpkins. I love them because not only because you can carve pumpkins into Jack O'Lanterns, but also because they're a health food superstar. Pumpkins are chock-full of beta-carotene, which your body uses to make vitamin A, which helps strengthen your immune system. An easy way to work pumpkin into your diet? Making it into your own puree, which can easily be mixed into oatmeal, soups, casseroles, muffins, quick bread, and of course, as a treat, pie. Here are some tips from our Food Director Beth Lipton on how to do it:
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- Pick up a smaller variety of pumpkin, often called sugar or pie pumpkins. The larger ones that you carve are not as flavorful and don't have the best texture for eating (though you can still roast the seeds for a tasty snack). Look for firm, bright orange pumpkins that are free of bruises and soft spots.
- Wash the pumpkin in warm water, then dry it with a clean kitchen towel. Use a serrated knife to saw the pumpkin in half, lengthwise - in other words, start at the stem end and slice down. Don't slice through the stem, work to one side of it. Be careful! This is the most challenging part.
- Scoop out the seeds and strings (a strong ice cream scoop or sharp spoon works well). Don't toss them! Put them in a bowl of water - you'll come back to them.
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- Put the 2 halves, cut side down, on a lightly oiled baking sheet and bake at 350ºF until tender. This can take as little as an hour or up to 2 hours, depending on the pumpkin. You can also cut the raw pumpkin into several pieces, place them in a microwave-safe bowl, cover and microwave until tender, usually 10 to 15 minutes. But I like the taste of roasted pumpkin better - it's richer.
- Let the pumpkin cool, then scrape the flesh out with a spoon and discard the skin. Mash up the flesh and you're good to go! You can also refrigerate it, covered, for a few days, or freeze it in ziplock bags for several months. I like to measure it first and write the amount on the bag. My pumpkin bread recipe calls for 1 cup of mashed pumpkin, so I freeze 1 cup per bag. You'll get about 2 to 3 cups of puree per pumpkin. (Or you could try it in these awesome Mini Pumpkin Muffins.)
- For the seeds, use your hands to mush the flesh and seeds around in the bowl of water - they'll separate fairly easily that way. Dry off the seeds, spread on a lightly oiled baking sheet, sprinkle with salt (and other spices, if you like - cumin and chili powder are good) and toast at 325ºF until crunchy, 10 to 20 minutes (check after 10), shaking the pan once or twice. Immediately transfer them to a bowl to cool. They make a great snack, they're fantastic on salads and make a great crunch addition to our Curried Pumpkin Soup.
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