The surprising health benefits hiding in your fall “décor”

Last week, September 22nd marked the first day of fall, my favorite season. The time of year is here when pumpkins appear on nearby front porches, stoops, and fence posts.

But they weren’t always relegated to decor.

For hundreds of years, men and women actually ate them…and not just in their pies and lattes. Pumpkins were an easy-to-grow and highly productive crop — especially in rural areas.

As you may know, pumpkins are a variety of squash. And they belong to the gourd or Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae) family. This enormous family of plants also includes zucchini and cucumbers.

Of course, squash has a long history in the Americas. In fact, the English word for squash derives from a word belonging to the native Natick and Narraganset tribes: Askutasquash.

Squash dates back thousands of years

Some experts claim that squash first came to the Americas thousands of years ago from Asia. Perhaps early humans carried seeds with them from Siberia to Alaska across the Bering Strait 50,000 years ago.

Squashes also have a very long growing season — up to 125 days for winter varieties. By comparison, corn has a growing season of just 75 days. So, in early North America, they were among the first seeds planted by Indians in the spring and the last crops harvested in the fall.

In those times, men and women often scooped out and ate the “meat” of the vegetable. They dried out other varieties, using the gourds as containers.

Native Americans also grew squash together with beans and corn. The beanstalks could grow up around the sturdier corn stalks, while squash and pumpkin vines spread along the ground among the corn. French explorer Samuel de Champlain described this sophisticated multi-cropping technique in the early 1600s — before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth.

The Iroquois of the upper Northeast called this three-crop combination de-o-ha-ko or “Three Sisters.” And the Onondagas, who lived in today’s upstate New York, called these crops tune-ha-kwe or “Those We Live On.”

Squash adds a boost of color and nutrition to any dish

A half-cup of cooked pumpkin has about 40 calories. It also has a significant amount antioxidant-rich carotenoids like pre-vitamin A (alpha and beta-carotene) as well as vitamin C, iron, and potassium.

Together, squash, beans, and corn also provide complementary nutrition in terms of protein, carbs, and essential amino acids.

Of course, pumpkins are the largest and most distinctive of all squashes in the gourd family. And this is the perfect time of year to try out a new pumpkin dish.

Here’s a simple recipe for cooking fresh pumpkin:

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. Wash outside of pumpkin with lukewarm water.
  3. Cut pumpkin into medium-sized chunks.
  4. Cut off pith (strings) and seeds. (Save the seeds for roasting later at a higher temperature.)
  5. Place cut pumpkin pieces skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Add 1/4 inch of water and bake uncovered for 1 hour or until tender.
  6. Remove from oven and allow pumpkin to cool.
  7. When cooled, cut away skin and mash or puree.

A five-pound pumpkin will yield about 2 cups of pumpkin puree, which you can use in any recipe that calls for canned pumpkin.

Of course, to keep your sugar intake down, I suggest skipping the sweet pumpkin confections. Instead, try adding your fresh, cooked pumpkin to soups and tomato sauces. You can even add some cinnamon and nutmeg,  and a dollop of fresh, cooked pumpkin to your morning oatmeal.

Happy fall!