By Shannon Keirnan
As far as I'm concerned, fall is the best time of year. I can wear jeans and baggy sweatshirts everyday while I grow in my warm winter leg hair. Everything smells really good for some reason, like burning leaves and apple orchards and cinnamon. Campy horror movies marathon on the television for weeks on end.
And, best of all... pumpkin-flavored EVERYTHING.
Laugh if you must, but to me there's nothing "basic" about craving pumpkin treats in the fall... unless you mean in terms of being a basic, standard human being who loves all that seasonal deliciousness. How could you not?
But there's a lot more to that orange fall staple than just an increased taste factor in my coffee. Pumpkins have a long history of being used as a food source (well before they jumped into your latte), and for good reason. They're loaded with health benefits!
Let's take a moment to explore the wonder of the pumpkin, shall we?
Below, check out a history of this noble, strange-looking food, read about the health benefits, and peruse a few recipes to get the full effect of incorporating pumpkin into your diet!
Pumpkins (from the Greek word "pepon," meaning "large melon"), unlike arguable foods like the hotdog or hamburger, are a true American fare. They originated in the ancient Americas, long before corn had become king. Pumpkin seeds have been found at archeological sites dating back more than 6,000 years. However, it is assumed that only the seeds were eaten, as wild pumpkins were bitter until the Native Americans took to cultivating them.
Native Americans grew pumpkins using the "Three Sisters" practice, planting corn, beans, and pumpkins all together (usually along with a dead fish for fertilizer). The beans put nitrogen into the soil, the corn and growing beans stabilized one another, and the pumpkin leaves provided shelter and shade to the shallow corn roots.
Native Americans ate pumpkins as a staple, often roasting strips over fires to dry them, which would provide nourishment through the long hard winters. Dried pumpkin was also ground into flour. Pumpkin seeds were not only food but a medicine, and pumpkin flowers were added into soups and stews.
Pumpkins also helped saved the pilgrims from starvation.
For pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."
Pilgrim verse, circa 1633
After a while, the pilgrims got savvy about preparing pumpkins. They scooped out the seeds, and filled the hollow insides with cream, honey, eggs, and spices, and roasted it in hot ashes. This great concept was pumpkin pie's esteemed ancestor.
The pilgrims also used pumpkin, along with persimmons, hops, and maple sugar, to ferment the first pumpkin-flavored beers... and for that gift we thank thee, pilgrims of old.
Europe, on the other hand, was not so quick to embrace pumpkins. They were called the Food of the Poor, and were considered "a very ordinary fruit." Potentially, they got the reputation because they were so easy to grow, and poor farmers could grow them in their dungheaps. As many of us know - including Nancy, who has a veritable pumpkin patch by her front door where an errant pumpkin once decided to rot - pumpkins are hardy and eager to thrive.
It was in the 1970's that the pumpkin we recognize today came to fruition, as hybrids which were excellent for carving came into popularity. Unfortunately, growing these for size and shape, rather than taste, has degraded much of the flavor, and the traditional Jack-O-Lantern pumpkin we know and love isn't ideal for consumption.
Want to create your own kitchen pumpkin masterpiece? Try heirloom varieties like Cinderella, Delicata, Hubbard, or Sugar Pie, if you want to give cooking them a go.
And eat them you should, because of the many
Pumpkins are also loaded with vitamins and minerals. Notably, they contain major amounts of vitamin A, vitamin B-6, beta-carotene, vitamin C, and potassium, and polyphenolic antioxidants like leutin, xanthin. They're also a good source for folates, niacin, and thiamin, and minerals like copper, calcium, and phosphorus.
Eating pumpkin can help prevent arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Pumpkin seeds contain plenty of zinc, unsaturated fatty acids, as well as protein. The amino acid tryptophan contained in the seeds is not only good for your body overall, but it also aids in the production of serotonin, a key component of a happy mood.
Pumpkin is super high in fiber. Diets high in fiber can increase weight loss and benefit heart health, and lower the risk of some cancers.
Pet owner note: pure pumpkin puree or fresh pumpkin is also safe for dogs. It can be a low-calorie treat, or added into a chunky dog's food to help keep it full if you've cut back on portion sizes. The extra fiber in there is also beneficial to dogs!
BUT CAN I EAT IT?
Obviously one of the greatest ways to enjoy the pumpkin is to incorporate it into a meal or drink, so check out a few of my favorite recipes below, and please feel free to leave more recipe suggestions in the comments!
Have a beautiful crisp weekend, everyone!
Copycat Pumpkin Spice Latte
The Food Babe pointed out this great recipe from Good Housekeeping, for those of us who love the Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte, but aren't so into the ridiculous prices or added carcinogens. I tweaked it only slightly, and used organic ingredients.
8 oz. milk of choice
4 oz. strong coffee or espresso
2 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1/4 cup organic pumpkin puree
Heat the sugar in 2 cups of water, whisking until dissolved. Add pumpkin pie spice, a dash of nutmeg and clove, and 1/2 a teaspoon of cinnamon.
In a separate pan, heat the pumpkin puree in a small amount of butter, until very slightly darkened (this will remove that "squashy" flavor).
Whisk the pumpkin puree into the syrup until everything is mixed well. Let cool, and then strain (excess can be stored in a glass jar in the refrigerator).
Brew 4 oz. of strong coffee or espresso, and combine with 8 oz. of your milk of choice (I prefer almond), heated. Stir in about 2 Tbsp. of the syrup and stir well, or blend.
Garnish with whipped cream (homemade is best!) and another dash of cinnamon, and enjoy!
Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars (Recipe: Sandy Keirnan)
These show up in my house every year, and I ain't sad about it.
1 cup flour (substitute gluten free, if needed)
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
5 Tbsp. softened butter
1/2 cup nuts, finely chopped (I prefer walnuts)
1 package softened cream cheese
1/2 cup pumpkin
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. allspice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine flour and brown sugar in medium bowl. Cut in butter to make a crumb mixture. Stir in nuts. Set aside 3/4 of the mix.
Press remaining mixture into the bottom of an 8" square. Bake for 15 minutes, and then let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, combine the cream cheese, sugar, pumpkin, eggs, cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Blend until smooth.
Pour over the baked crust. Sprinkle with the reserved topping.
Bake 30-25 minutes.
Cool before cutting into bars.
Roasted Pumpkin Seeds:
Fresh pumpkin seeds (don't need to be rinsed clean)
2-3 Tbsp. melted butter or olive oil
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. Pepper
1/4 tsp. powdered garlic
1/2 tsp. Chili powder
Dash Cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Toss all ingredients in a bowl, and bake on a cookie sheet for 25-40 minutes until golden brown, stirring once.