It's pumpkin time, and to most people that means Halloween jack-o'-lanterns and Thanksgiving table decorations. If you think of eating pumpkin at all, pie -- but not much else -- comes to mind. So it's time to think again.
One-half cup of pumpkin right out of the can is an amazingly rich source of carotenoids -- those naturally occurring antioxidants thought to fight many forms of cancer, heart disease and possibly a type of blindness called macular degeneration.
Carotenoids are the orange, red and yellow pigments in vegetables and fruits such as sweet red peppers, apricots and cantaloupe. They're also abundant, but hidden, in such dark green leafy vegetables as broccoli, kale and collard greens.
Carotenoids have long been recognized for their ability to become vitamin A in the body, on an "as needed" basis. The big bonus here is that carotenoids are safe even in high doses. Pre-formed vitamin A, on the other hand, can become toxic if taken in overdoses from supplements.
If you'd like to try cooking your own pumpkin from scratch, try a dark red "sugar pumpkin." It's a fleshier variety, with a smaller seed cavity and less stringy consistency. Cut the pumpkin in half, then scrape out the seeds and stringy pulp.
Bake, skin side up, on a cookie sheet, for about 45 minutes in a 350-degree oven. Let the pumpkin cool, and then peel off the skin. Puree the pulp in a food processor. The pumpkin puree will be thinner than densely packed canned pumpkin. When substituting canned pumpkin for puree in recipes, thin the canned pumpkin with a little water.
For creative pumpkin ideas, check out health-focused or vegetarian cookbooks featuring updated vegetable recipes. Here are a few to get you started.
Cream of tomato and pumpkin soup
Makes 8 servings
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 cup chopped onion
4 cups vegetable stock or bouillon
1 (28-ounce) can stewed tomatoes, no spices added
2 tablespoons maple syrup
4 cups pumpkin puree or canned pumpkin
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
salt to taste
In a large pot, heat oil, then saute onion until limp, but not browned (6-8 minutes). Stir in 3 cups stock, and then simmer, partially covered, 15 minutes.
Pour tomatoes and syrup into food processor. Puree. Add to onions.
Stir in pumpkin and remaining 1 cup of stock. Season with salt and pepper. Continue simmering until hot.
Calories: 105; protein: 3 grams; carbohydrates: 22 grams; fat: 2 grams; fiber: 4 grams; vitamin A from carotenes: 350 percent of the RDA
Adapted from: Vegetarian Journal, The Vegetarian Resource Group, Baltimore.
Makes 10 ( 1/2 -cup) servings
29-ounce can unsweetened pumpkin
3 apples, chopped
1 cup raisins
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 tablespoons molasses
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Combine all ingredients and pour into a loaf pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve hot.
Calories: 164; protein: 2 grams; carbohydrates: 33 grams; fat: 4 grams; fiber: 4 grams; vitamin A from carotenes: 200 percent of the RDA.
From: "Simply Vegan" by Debra Wasserman. The Vegetarian Resource Group, Baltimore.
Orange date pumpkin muffins
Makes 12 muffins
1 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 large seedless orange, scrubbed and cut into 8 sections
1 large egg
1 large egg white
2/3 cup canned pumpkin
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup honey or corn syrup
3 tablespoons canola oil
3/4 cup chopped, pitted dates
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts or pecans
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners or coat with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
Puree orange sections in food processor. Add egg, egg white, pumpkin, brown sugar, honey or corn syrup and oil. Process until mixed.
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the orange mixture and dates; stir with a rubber spatula just to moisten the dry ingredients. Spoon into the prepared muffin cups and sprinkle with nuts. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, or until the tops spring back when touched lightly.
Calories: 220; protein: 4 grams; carbohydrate: 41 grams; fat: 5 grams; fiber 3 grams; vitamin A from carotene: 38 percent of the RDA. From "The Eating Well New Favorites Cookbook" by Eating Well magazine.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.