It’s that time of year again when pumpkins appear on the shelves of supermarkets and green grocer’s. In recent times, the pumpkin has come to be associated more with a festival than with the superfood that it is. What started as a Celtic festival to mark the harvest and the move into autumn, mutated over the years and moved across the Atlantic to become and American celebration resembling more a Christian carnival, albeit dominated by ghouls and witches, rather than anything to do with the harvest and the marking of the seasons. Perhaps one of the few things that have remained almost unchanged about this celebration is the Jack-o’-Lanterns. Having said that, the original Jack-o’-lanterns was carved out of turnips, potatoes or beets since the ball-shaped pumpkin now associated with Halloween, the Curcubita Pepo, is native to the New World and not to Ireland. Interestingly, I saw only yesterday, a carved watermelon being used instead of the traditional pumpkin. Customs and tradition aside, if you are to stay within season and eat healthy, the traditional winter pumpkin should be the food of choice. Bearing in mind that pumpkins are full of health benefits, what will you do with all that orange flesh you spent so long carving out?
Squash vs Pumpkin
Before we explore the many health benefits of the Curcubita Pepo, including the claims that it can help reduce blood sugar, we should look more closely at this fruit typically consumed as a vegetable. The round pumpkin that is used as the symbol of Halloween is one of many types of squashes, and in particular a winter squash of the Curcubitaceae family know in different parts of the world by the name of pumpkin, squash or gourd depending on the species, variety and local language. This Curcubita Pepo is a round, ball-shaped squash with thick ribbed skin and yellow-to-orange flesh inside.
Other members of the squash family, which can be roughly sub-divided into summer and winter squashes, include the courgette, cucumber, watermelon, melon, butternut squash, gourd and loofahs (yes the loofah sponges you use in your shower are actually a specific variety of dried cucumber!)
The health benefits of pumpkins
The Curcubita Pepo weighs between 3 to 8kg on average, contains 26kcals per 100gm and is made up of 92 % water. It is packed with pro vitamin A (a.k.a. beta carotene), vitamin A, vitamin C as well as being high in fibre, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc. Its many health benefits include its antioxidant properties which help fight inflammation, its anti-cancer protection against stomach, breast (particularly in menopausal and post-menopausal women), lung, prostate and colon cancers. Its high magnesium content helps control blood pressure, can help reduce the risk of heart disease, is beneficial in maintaining bone health and helps to reduce blood sugar levels. It is also useful in promoting better sleep, and should be chosen over cacao for this purpose due to its lack of caffeine. Last, but not least, its low G.I. load (only 1 !) when boiled, is ideal for those on low sugar diets.
How to use the pumpkin flesh in a healthy kitchen
In the US, the pumpkin is a staple at Thanksgiving, not just during Halloween. It is most often seen in pumpkin pies which unfortunately contain such large quantities of sugar that the health benefits above are rendered void. However, the good news is that pumpkin can be used in delicious sweet and savoury dishes which do not require the use of otherwise unhealthy additions. Similarly there is no need to buy canned pumpkin puree to make your dishes. Pumpkins, and squash in general, are easy and quick to prepare at home.
Personally, in the kitchen I prefer to work with butternut squash instead of the large round pumpkins. Not only is it easier to cut, but it is usually easier to buy in smaller quantities. You could freeze it, but notwithstanding freezer space, fresh is always better.
The first recipe I made this year was Butternut Squash Barley Risotto. All you need to do is replace the rice with barley, and cook it as you would the risotto, adding a little vegetable stock at a time (for the basic barley risotto recipe see page 23 of Anna's Kitchen). Add some small cubed butternut squash flesh about 10 minutes before the end (pumpkin cooks quickly)of the cooking time for barley and you will end up with a deliciously creamy risotto that is guaranteed to make you feel warm and full. Grate some parmesan on top to balance the sweetness and it becomes the ultimate comfort food during the autumn season. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine pumpkin is warming and promotes healthy digestion and strengthens energy, which is just what is needed in preparation for autumn.
However, my favourite new recipe this year has become the pumpkin puddings, which is basically the filling of the pumpkin pie minus the crust. I used the filling recipe for the pumpkin pie I have been using for years, modified it slightly by the addition of more spices and reducing the sugar to almost nothing. For once I allowed myself the indulgence of some cane sugar, but so little as to make no difference to the overall health benefits (2 level tablespoons compared to the 125gm of the original recipe).
Butternut Squash Pumpkin Puddings
Ingredients ( makes 6 to 8)
Approx. 300gm washed, peeled, deseeded and cubed butternut squash
2 tbsp cane sugar (you can use a little stevia instead)
1-2 tsp ground nutmeg
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1-2 tsp vanilla essence
1 tbsp spelt flour
A handful of pecans
1. Place the small butternut squash cubes in a pan and just cover with water. Cook until tender and the squash can be easily pureed with a fork or a potato masher.
2. In a large bowl, break and mix the eggs with the sugar and vanilla essence. Add the spices and mix again.
3. In another bowl puree the pumpkin flesh either in a blender or with a fork. Transfer this to the bowl with the eggs and spices, then add the flour and blend all the ingredients thoroughly.
4. Take your individual ramekins and fill each one up, leaving a clear 1cm from the top. Place a pecan half on the top centre of each pudding.
5. Transfer the ramekins onto an oven tray and place in the oven at 180°C until the mixture sets. This should take approximately 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of your ramekins and your oven.
6. Test they are cooked by inserting a toothpick into the middle. This should come out clean.
7. Allow to cool on a wire rack and serve at room temperature. Store any additional ones in the fridge.
These individual puddings can be made as healthy Halloween treats, or the recipe can be used as the filling on a crust made with chickpea flour and oil (see here for the basic crust recipe as used for Tuna Empanadas, just omit the salt!), and turned into a pie. Just add pecans on top!
If you still have pumpkin flesh leftover you can cut it into small cubes, place in a pan with some salt, cover and cook until soft. Then blitz in a blender, add a little pepper and olive oil and serve as a soup. It tastes even better cooked with a carrot and some onion. What could be easier than that?
Looking for a quick side dish to replace those potatoes? Wash and thinly slice that butternut squash. Place on an oven tray, sprinkle with some olive oil and place in the oven at 180°C until softened. Eat skin and all!
Don’t throw away those seeds!
One of the healthiest food trends of recent years has been the addition of pumpkin seeds to salads and other dishes. The pumpkin seeds are considered superfood in themselves, so why would you throw away such a bounty? All you need to do is remove any pulp and fibrous bits clinging to the seeds. Wash them and dry them, place them on an oven tray in one layer, spray a little olive oil, and roast until they start to turn golden brown. They won’t turn green like the ones sold in health food shops so watch out that they do not burn! Let them cool, then transfer into an airtight jar to store until needed. Eat them as a snack, or add to your meals.
Happy (and healthy) Halloween!