Sunday, November 20, 2011

Out of Your Gourd: Pumpkin and Winter Squash

Dad always grew some kind of squash or gourd in the garden. One year he grew lots of birdhouse gourds (we are still using them for fall decorations and birdhouses). Most years he grew a few “field pumpkins” for carving into jack-o-lanterns. He also raised acorn or butternut squash. Mom would cut them in half, add brown sugar and butter and bake.

Squash and pumpkins are common names for plants in the gourd family. This time of year they are flowing into local supermarkets, farmer’s markets and roadside stands. Acorn, Carnival, Delicata, Hubbard and, of course, Lancaster County’s Neck Pumpkins are in abundance no matter where you look this time of year. Pumpkin varieties are many; large ones are most often used for decorations. Small “pie pumpkins” are used for cooking.

Native Americans dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats. They also roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them. One version of the first pumpkin pie occurred when colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed seeds and filled the insides with milk, honey and spices. Then the pumpkin was baked in hot ashes.

Dark yellow vegetables like pumpkin and winter squash not only taste great, but also are packed with nutrients. One serving of ½ cup solid pack pumpkin or winter squash provides you with five times the U.S. RDA for Vitamin A. It also contains about 10% of the minimum requirement for potassium, packs lots of fiber, and is relatively low in calories. A half cup of cooked or canned pumpkin or winter squash contains only 40 calories – if fat and sugar are kept to a minimum.

Fresh pumpkin can be substituted in any recipe that calls for winter squash.

Select winter squash and pumpkins for eating that are heavy for their size, have shiny skin and no cracks, bruises or decayed spots. The stem should be attached. Avoid any with a soft spot on the stem end.

Store winter and squash in a cool (50 – 60° F.) dry area. They will keep for several months if they are mature and the stem is attached. Refrigeration may change the flavor and texture.

When a recipe calls for pureed pumpkin, an easy way to prepare it is to cut it in half, remove the seeds and place upside down on a baking sheet and bake at 350°F until the pulp is tender. Scoop out pulp and mash with a potato masher or puree in a food processor. Figure about 1 pound of raw, untrimmed pumpkin or squash for each cup of cooked/pureed pulp. If you want to freeze for later use, measure in one cup portions and place in rigid freezer containers or freezer bags. Freeze for up to one year. Puree can be used in recipes calling for the same amount of solid pack canned pumpkin. Do not freeze raw winter squash or pumpkin.

Besides pie, pumpkin and squash can be used in a variety of dishes: Add to hashed meats with apples, pears, or other fruits. Combine with rice and minced green pepper in a thick cheese sauce. Add pureed carrots, sliced onions and leeks, chopped celery and parsley to pumpkin soup or make a pumpkin soufflé with white sauce, eggs and cheese.

Cooked pumpkin and squash products should be stored in the refrigerator. Pumpkin pie is a custard pie and needs to be refrigerated.

Many families like to roast pumpkin seeds when they are making jack-o-lanterns. Wash seeds well. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet to dry. Roast for 20 – 30 minutes at 375°F. Dot with butter and brown for 5-10 minutes at 400°F. Stir often until toasted. Watch carefully. Sprinkle with salt, cool and serve.

For additional information on pumpkin and winter squash contact your local Cooperative Extension office and ask for the Enjoy Five-a-Day Variety Squash and Pumpkin publication.

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