Monday, October 31, 2016

The Great Pumpkin Revisited

Just in time for Hallowe'en! Today's Meatless Monday topic is the pumpkin. Celebrated at this time of year for its potential to grow to a gargantuan size and the ease with which it can be carved, the pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) has been a valuable source of nourishment for centuries. 

The pumpkin originated in Central America but is now grown on six continents. Pumpkins come in numerous varieties. Some are better for eating or growing large; others are better for carving. The Jack-o’-lantern in the photo was most likely carved from a Connecticut Field pumpkin

The Pilgrims were not familiar with the pumpkin when they landed on the shores of what is now Massachusetts in the 1600s. But they soon learned of the many ways the Native Americans put the pumpkin to good use including roasting of long strips of pumpkin on the open fire for eating, and drying strips of pumpkin for weaving into mats. The creative colonists went on to invent uses of their own: the origin of pumpkin pie occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, filled the insides with milk, spices and honey and then baked the pumpkin in hot ashes. They also found a way to turn it into beer, a tradition that continues in the brewing of seasonal ale to this day.

Pumpkins are a nutritious food, low in calories, high in fiber, and packed with vitamins and minerals. One cup of cooked pumpkin has 2 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, 564 mg of potassium, an astounding 2650 IU of Vitamin A, and a mere 49 calories.

Newly-harvested pumpkins are readily available at farmers markets, farm stands, and supermarkets. With Thanksgiving on the horizon, store shelves are well stocked with cans of pumpkin that have been cooked and puréed to make life easier when you have to whip up a pumpkin pie on the fly. 

These cans of pumpkin are good for lots more than pie, so pick up a few before they disappear. They will come in handy when you crave a pumpkin treat and local pumpkins are nowhere to be found. One of my favorite uses for pumpkin purée is in a cornbread recipe I adapted from a recipe from The Muffin Cookbook: Muffins for All Occasions, a spiral-bound cookbook published to promote name-brand canned goods and dairy products.  

Tex-Mex Pumpkin Corn Muffins (Cornbread)

1 cup yellow organic cornmeal
1 cup unbleached organic flour
2 tablespoons sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon (or more) of your favorite chili powder
2 eggs
1 cup canned organic pumpkin (NOT pie filling) 
[Note: Feel free to cook and prepare your own.]
1 cup low-fat milk
2 tablespoons organic canola oil
1 4 oz can chopped green chili peppers (mild) or one small, fresh chili chopped
3 oz (or more to taste; I use at least 4 oz) of extra sharp Cheddar cheese, grated

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients. In a smaller bowl beat eggs; mix in pumpkin, milk, oil, and chopped chili peppers. Add wet ingredients to dry; combine with rubber scraper just until moistened. Turn into an oiled 10” cast iron skillet. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake in 425° oven for 20-25 minutes —just until cake tester comes out dry. If you decide to bake as muffins, temperature should be lowered to 400°, time will be approximately the same, but check on the early side. Makes around 18 muffins. 

This cornbread is a wonderful accompaniment to pea soup or curried kale. Leftovers (if there are any) taste great after being lightly toasted in a toaster oven and then spread win a little grape jam.

Now for some Jack-o’-lantern trivia in honor of this holiday: This tradition was brought to the United States by the Irish. The myth behind the Jack-o’-lantern involves a stingy man named Jack who makes a deal with the devil and finds himself wandering forever after he dies, unable to gain admittance to either Heaven or Hell. Legend has it that the devil tossed Jack an ember from Hell to light his way. Jack placed the ember in a carved out turnip which he carried with him as he roamed the earth. People in the British Isles began carving various root vegetables to make their own “Jack-o’-lanterns” to keep Stingy Jack and other evil spirits away. The Irish used turnips (and sometimes potatoes). Upon arriving in the US, they discovered the readily available, larger, and easy to carve pumpkin. “Turnip Jack” soon became history and the pumpkin Jack-o’-lantern became part of American culture. 

[Note: This post was originally published in October 2010.]

I often blog on food or food issues on Monday in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.

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