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As the weather gets chillier, it's time to break out the recipes that use our favorite fall flavors like apple cinnamon, maple pecan and, of course, all things pumpkin! While pumpkin spice is ubiquitous during this time of year, there are actually a myriad of ways to use this gourd that are both sweet and savory.
If you want the true health benefits of this gorgeous gourd, it's time to learn how to cook with real pumpkin — not just the stuff that comes in a can. Not only is it incredibly flavorful, pumpkin packs an impressive nutritional punch, too.
Pumpkins are in season from September through November, which is why fall holidays highlight pumpkin recipes. You’ll likely find the best selection of pumpkins at your local farmers market, but your favorite grocery store should also have a decent assortment. First, it's important to understand the difference between cooking pumpkins and jack-o’-lantern carving pumpkins.
To carve or to cook?
The pumpkin that you pick to decorate a porch and carve scary faces into is bigger than varieties used for cooking and contains more fiber than the type you’d want to use in pumpkin stew or a pie. Carving varieties include Aladdin, Howden, Rock Star, Wolf and Magic Lantern. For cooking, select a pumpkin that weighs three to six pounds, which is large enough to make a few pies. Look for these cooking varieties at the market: Cinderella, Long Island Cheese, New England Pie and Sweetie Pie. Some varieties, like Winter Luxury, are appropriate for both eating and carving.
When selecting the perfect pumpkin, choose one with no soft spots. It should also be uniform in color, with no signs of mold or unusual discoloration. Also, pick a pumpkin that has its “handle,” or stem, intact. Skip any with a brown stem and opt for those that have dark green ones, which indicate that they were recently picked. Unlike many types of produce that will go bad within a few days, a pumpkin will last for a few weeks until you're ready to cook with it. Just make sure to store it at room temperature. If you happen to have lots of room in your fridge, it will keep in there for up to three months.
How to prep pumpkin perfectly
Thoroughly wash the outside of the pumpkin with warm water to remove any surface dirt. Then, place the pumpkin on a sturdy work surface, such as a large cutting board. Use a serrated knife to cut into the pumpkin (yes, this will take some muscle!) and cut around the handle, creating a hole in the top of the pumpkin.
Next, scoop out the guts and seeds with clean hands. Use a large metal spoon to get any extra bits. Separate the seeds and save them for roasting later. Remove any stringy bits and discard them. Now, the pumpkin is ready to be used for pies and baked goods, or just roasting the gourd's flesh.
For pumpkin puree, cut the pumpkin shell in half and then roast it (about 30 minutes at 350 degrees) or microwave it (put the pieces in a microwave-safe bowl covered with plastic wrap and cook on high for 15 minutes) until fork tender. Scoop the cooked flesh from the skin and transfer it to a food processor or blender to make a puree. You can use it in muffins, to fill ravioli or to stir into soups.
For cubed pumpkin, start by removing the thick outer skin, then cut up the flesh into 1-inch cubes, toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast at 350 degrees, until tender, which will take about 20 minutes. Try this tasty recipe for Winter Salad with Roasted Pumpkin and Oyster Mushrooms.
Pump up the nutritional power of pumpkin
Pumpkin is off-the-charts rich in sight-saving vitamin A, with over 14,000 IU per cup. It’s also low in calories, with only 100 per cup of puree. The same serving also boasts 6 grams of filling fiber.
The seeds of the pumpkin, also known as pepitas, are rich in magnesium, a mineral that's vital for bone building and proper nerve and muscle function. A ¼-cup serving of shelled pumpkin seeds contains 200 calories and provides 187 milligrams of magnesium and almost 3 grams of fiber. Vegans take note: That ¼-cup serving also packs in 4.8 milligrams of iron, which is comparable to 6 cups of raw spinach. To maximize the amount of iron your body absorbs from the pumpkin seeds, pair them with vitamin C-rich foods, like oranges, strawberries, bell peppers and cauliflower. Enjoy pumpkin seeds as a snack, over yogurt or tossed into salads.
So get out and enjoy that upcoming trip to the pumpkin patch, just remember to bring home at least two — one to carve and one to cook!
Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, is a nutrition expert, writer, mom of three and bestselling author. Her books include "Feed the Belly," "The CarbLovers Diet" and "Eating in Color." Follow her @FrancesLRothRD and check out her website.