As autumn descends, vibrant oranges, reds, and golds dapple the countryside, especially at local farm stands and urban markets, where richly hued pumpkins and squash pile high in assorted shapes and sizes. You can enjoy these quintessential fall fruits in a variety of nutritious soups, appetizers, main dishes, and desserts.
For centuries, pumpkins and squash have been prized for their versatility and durability. Indigenous to the Americas, squash gets its name from the Native American word askutasquash. The Chinese call the pumpkin “Emperor of the Garden” and consider it the symbol of fruitfulness. Its name derives from the Greek word pepon, meaning “cooked by the sun.” Aptly named, pumpkins and winter squash are only eaten when fully mature, whereas summer squash such as zucchini and yellow squash are best picked young and tender.
While you enjoy fall’s harvest, you may also be protecting yourself against cancer and heart disease. Squash and pumpkins are packed with the powerful carotenoid and antioxidant beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. Responsible for giving pumpkins and squash their brilliant orange hues, beta carotene has been found to boost immune function and help prevent cancer, heart disease, and macular degeneration, or deterioration of the retina. Pumpkins and squash are also good sources of vitamin C, riboflavin, and iron. Plus, they’re low in calories, high in fiber, and fat- and cholesterol-free.
Pumpkin seeds and their oil have been used in folk medicine to heal wounds and scars and to treat prostate disorders. Recent studies show that pumpkin seeds contain protease inhibitors and free-radical fighters that may help heal intestinal viruses, reproductive disorders, and arthritis.
There are more than forty varieties of squash, including pumpkins. Some of the most popular squash varieties include butternut, delicata, Hubbard, turban, acorn, spaghetti, and pumpkin. Pumpkin varieties ideal for cooking are called “pie” or “sugar” pumpkins. Most pumpkin varieties can be used interchangeably in cooking, although beefy jack-o’-lantern types are grown mainly for decoration, as their flesh may become watery with cooking.
During the harvest season, September to February, choose squash that are firm, unblemished, and heavy for their size. Also, look for squash with a dried stem, which indicates the fruit was left on the vine longer and is especially sweet. Winter squash keeps throughout the winter when stored in a cool, dry place. Like fine wines, squash improve with age. As squash mature, enzymes transform starch molecules into sugars, making the fruit sweeter over time and easier for the body to digest.
With flavors ranging from sweet to nutty, squash and pumpkin can suit almost any palate. Warming spices such as ginger and cinnamon—along with sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, and brown sugar—are often used to enhance squash’s flavor.
These versatile fruits can be baked, boiled, steamed, sautéed, stuffed, mashed, and even stir-fried. The skins are edible if they are unwaxed. If the skins are waxed, remove the peel before cooking.
Medicinal mushrooms such as maitake (Grifola frondosa) and shiitake (Lentinula edodes) contain polysaccharides known as beta glucans, which may be responsible for the fungi’s immune-stimulating benefits, ranging from fighting colds to thwarting cancer. Bulgur, a nutritious whole grain, may help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
This slightly sweet, low-fat soup provides a cornucopia of heart-healthy antioxidants, carotenoids, and bioflavonoids. Served in a pumpkin, it makes a grand opening to a holiday meal.
Folks will love to watch as you cut the pumpkin open to reveal this delicious dual-colored dessert.