This week, I enjoy seeing all the jack-o-lanterns glowing to light the way for the young trick-or-treaters around the neighborhood.
But pumpkins weren’t always relegated to front porches and fence posts.
In fact, there’s a lot of culinary history behind these fall favorites, which I’ll share with you in just a moment.
And then, I’ll outline how you can make your own pumpkin purée, pumpkin spice, and roasted pumpkin seeds—all of which make healthy, tasty, seasonal treats…without the sugar and processing.
Pumpkins and squash have long history in the Americas
Pumpkins are a kind of squash. They belong to the Cucurbita family of plants (which also includes cucumbers and zucchini). And, of course, these vegetables have a long history in the Americas…
In fact, Indigenous Americans typically grew squashes and pumpkins together with corn and beans. The beanstalks grew up on the sturdy cornstalks, while the pumpkin vines spread along the ground. And since squash and pumpkins have the longest growing season of any crop (about 125 days), they’re often among the first seeds you plant in the spring and the last harvested in the fall.
In 1607, years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, French explorer Samuel de Champlain described this sophisticated, multi-cropping technique (during his exploration of what we now call New England). Of course, the Iroquois of the upper Northeast called this three-crop system de-o-ha-ko or the “Three Sisters.” And the Onondagas, in today’s Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, called it tune-ha-kwe or “those we live on.”
When eaten together (as in the New England traditional succotash), beans, corn, and squash supply complementary nutrition in terms of essential amino acids.
But pumpkin flesh, all on its own, is about as nutrient-dense as you can imagine…
It’s high in vitamins B, C, E, and the often-neglected K. It also contains plenty of alpha- and beta-carotene, the natural precursors for vitamin A in your body. It’s also a great source of other healthy carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin, which support your vision.
Pumpkin flesh also provides a rich source of hard-to-find, but much-needed bioavailable minerals—including copper, iron (which needs to come from foods, not supplements), magnesium, potassium, selenium, and zinc. Plus, the latest science shows two of these minerals, magnesium and potassium, can even help control blood pressure.
Given all the amazing nutrients packed into this classic, fall vegetable, I recommend you add fresh (not canned!) pumpkin to your cooking as much as possible!
So, here’s my simple recipe for making homemade pumpkin purée, using the flesh of a whole pumpkin. You can add it soups, sauces, pasta, coffee, yogurt, butter, breads, muffins, or just about any dish that calls for canned pumpkin…
Homemade pumpkin purée
- 1 large pumpkin
- Pinch of sea salt, to taste
- Olive oil
- Pumpkin spices, to taste
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
- Wash outside of pumpkin with warm water.
- Cut pumpkin into medium-sized parts, cut off strings and seeds, saving the seeds for roasting.(See more below.)
- Place cut pumpkin pieces skin-side up in a large roasting pan.
- Add ¼ inch of water to the pan and bake uncovered for 1 hour or until soft.
- Remove from oven, cool, remove skin, and mash or purée.
Then—to get even more bang for your buck—add some healthy “pumpkin spice” to your homemade purée. But be sure to skip all the sickly sweet “pumpkin spice” confections you see everywhere at this time of year…
Pumpkin spice is much more than a flavor of the month
It’s far healthier (and tastier) to sprinkle REAL pumpkin spice directly into your homemade pumpkin purée and into other foods and beverages.
Typically, pumpkin spice refers to a combination of these five spices:
And by using fresh spices, you’ll reap their many medicinal properties. For example…
Allspice contains compounds that run the gamut of health benefits. They can help tame harmful inflammation, relieve pain, increase circulation, improve mood, lower blood pressure, and support the immune system. Allspice also has important minerals like potassium, manganese, iron, copper, selenium, and magnesium.
Cinnamon has powerful antioxidant, antidiabetic, and antibacterial properties. The best-known variety, called Cassia cinnamon, thins the blood, helps prevent blood clots, and controls blood sugar.
However, if you take a blood thinner drug, you should use the other variety of cinnamon called Ceylon. It will give you the anti-inflammatory benefits without potential drug interaction side effects.
Cloves improve digestion and may even help control blood sugar levels. Clove oil is also great for toothaches and removing skin growths. You can even roast cloves and eat them with honey as a special treat.
Ginger, like cloves, can help soothe digestion problems. In fact, in China, men and women have used ginger to treat stomach upset, diarrhea, nausea, and pain for more than 3,000 years. It’s probably one reason why ginger plays such a prominent role in Asian cooking to this day.
Nutmeg, like many of the other spices on this list, also helps reduce inflammation. In fact, nutmeg oil slows the production of COX-2, the enzyme responsible for the pain and inflammation that ibuprofen and some other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) target. Nutmeg tea also eases digestive discomfort. But be aware, some accounts suggest that nutmeg at high doses can cause hallucinations. Also, pregnant or nursing women and infants should not take it.
And if all that wasn’t enough, don’t forget to keep the pumpkin seeds when you’re cleaning out your pumpkin. They’re highly beneficial for the prostate especially, as I reported in the October 2019 issue of my monthly Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“Men: Protect your prostate and slash your risk of other chronic diseases with this fall favorite”).
If you’ve never roasted your own pumpkin seeds before, it’s actually very easy to do. After cleaning off the pulp, dry the seeds out on a towel, toss them with olive oil and salt, then roast in the oven at 325°F for 10 minutes.
Some people crack the dried, roasted, outer shell to extract the soft, inner seeds. But I prefer to eat the roasted pumpkin seeds whole, along with the shell for the added nutrition (especially fiber) and crunch.
To learn more about the amazing health benefits of pumpkin, check out the current October 2021 issue of my monthly newsletter, Insiders’ Cures (“Two fall favorites hold scary-good health benefits”). If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to become one!
“Five uncelebrated spices to add to your anti-inflammatory arsenal,” Elephant Journal, 8/3/2017. (elephantjournal.com/2017/08/5-uncelebrated-spices-to-add-to-your-anti-inflammatory-arsenal/)
“13 Surprising Benefits of Cloves,” Organic Facts, 10/11/2017. (organicfacts.net/health-benefits/herbs-and-spices/health-benefits-of-cloves.html)
“Allspice nutrition facts,” Nutrition and You, 11/10/19. (nutrition-and-you.com/allspice.html)
“7 Impressive Benefits Of Allspice.” Organic Facts, 7/2/21. (organicfacts.net/health-benefits/herbs-and-spices/allspice.html)