I think pumpkins and winter squash are a significant fall comfort food. They make delicious side dishes as well as the perfect ingredient for adding flavor to desserts, casseroles, soups and pancakes. For me, they symbolize the change of seasons and are a reminder of the holiday season ahead.
Pumpkins and winter squash varieties are a good source of vitamins and minerals, particularly beta-carotene. Fall and winter are the harvesting seasons for these tasty sweet-flavored vegetables. Winter squash varieties such as acorn, butternut, buttercup and hubbard come in assorted shapes and sizes and have flesh colors that range from golden-yellow to brilliant orange.
Most winter squash as well as sweet potatoes are interchangeable in recipes requiring pumpkin. Winter squash can also be dressed with butter and herbs, a cream sauce, cheese sauce, maple syrup and nuts, marinara sauce or stewed fruit.
When selecting a pumpkin for cooking, do not use big field pumpkins. Select smaller “sugar” pumpkins as they tend to be more tender, flavorful and less watery. When picking out a pumpkin or squash, make sure they are blemish free, have their stems intact and feel heavy for their size (the same as picking out a watermelon). Look for a dull exterior because a shiny skin means the pumpkin was picked to soon.
Pumpkins and squash may be stored in a cool, dry place for up to a month. Because of the convenient canned pumpkin products so readily available, I do not cook fresh pumpkin as often as I have in the past. However, I like to roast the pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas). The seeds make a healthy, tasty snack everyone enjoys munching on.
Pumpkins and winter squash are cooked in the same manner. To start, cut the vegetable in half, scrape away and discard the stringy pulp and seeds (unless you are roasting pumpkin seeds). Rinse the halves under cold water then proceed with one of the following cooking methods.
Boiling/steaming: Cut each of the halves into large pieces and place them in a large kettle or steamer basket with about 1 cup of water (add more water if necessary). Cover the pot and gently boil for about 20-30 minutes or steam for about 10-12 minutes or until fork tender. Drain the cooked pumpkin or squash in a colander. Reserve the liquid for another use.
Oven: Cut the vegetable halves into quarters. Place them cut side down on a large cookie sheet. I add a little water to the pan and bake at 350 degrees for about one hour or until the flesh is fork tender.
Microwave: Place each half (or if it is too big for the plate cut it into quarters) cut side down on a microwave safe plate. Cover the pieces with waxed paper and microwave on high for about 15 minutes or until its fork tender.
After the pumpkin or squash is cooked and cool enough to handle, I scoop out the pulp, discard the skin, then mash the pulp using a potato masher, electric beater or a food processor to attain a smoother texture.
Fresh-cooked pumpkin or squash puree will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week or it can be frozen in containers or freezer bags for up to a year.
Don’t forget to label and date the packages. Substitute the same amount of fresh cooked pumpkin in any recipe calling for solid pack canned pumpkin.