PLANTS AND RECIPES
When 16th-century European explorers came to the Americas, they discovered new foods being raised by the natives — corn and squashes. The many varieties of squash were first called pumpions by the English explorers, the word for melon, which to them this crop most closely resembled. Later on, the English adopted the Massachusetts Indian word for this highly productive vine plant, askutasquash. Pumpkin is a delicious-tasting winter squash. Don't be confused by the words pumpkin and winter squash. They can be used interchangeably in nearly all recipes. All winter squash has a rich flavor, high nutrient content, long storage capability, variety, and versatility.
Pumpkins grow in the field on plants that have long sprawling vines that cover the ground. Pumpkin seeds are planted in the middle of June. After the seeds are planted, they will germinate in 5 to 7 days, depending upon the variety. During this time, the seeds require ample moisture and warmth. Once the seeds have sprouted, they will send up their first leaves, called seed leaves.
Next, the adult true leaves will develop. Yellow blossoms begin to appear after the first 3 weeks of growth. Male flowers, which produce pollen, appear first. About a week later, the female blossoms appear. They are easy to see because they have tiny pumpkins at their base following pollination. Amazingly, female blossoms survive for only one-half day, and will not open in cold, rainy weather. When both male and female blossoms are present on the vine, bees transfer the pollen from the male blossoms to the female blossoms. This process is called pollination.
Once pollinated, the fruit at the base of the female blossom develops into a full-sized pumpkin. During this time, the plant continues to produce blossoms. The pumpkin contains seeds that can be saved to grow new pumpkins the following year, although new seeds are typically purchased from a commercial supplier. While growing, pumpkins require substantial moisture and sunlight. Depending upon the variety, it takes about 90 to 120 days for a pumpkin to fully develop into an adult fruit after planting. While growing, pumpkins are green in color. They turn the familiar bright orange after reaching full maturity.
Pumpkin and Squash Varieties
- Howdens are large, hard-skinned, ribbed orange pumpkins that carve well for jack-o'-lanterns. They are not good for eating as they are stringy and tasteless.
- Sugars are small, round orange pumpkins with stout stems and slightly sweet flesh. They can be used for cooking, but the texture is stringy.
- Hubbards are large, gray-blue squash with very hard skin. They have a pleasant, old-fashioned flavor that is well-suited for soups, stuffings, and stews.
- Turbans are flamboyantly colored and good to eat. They are creamy, moist, bland, and somewhat fibrous. They make nice centerpieces and fine additions to fall meals.
- Buttercups are medium-sized, drum-shaped squash with a "beanie" on the bottom, generally dark-green spotted or striped with gray. They are very flavorful, rich, and sweet.
- Jack-be-littles are tangerine-sized, sweet-tasting, and flavorful mini-pumpkins.
- Sweet dumplings are small, green- and white-striped squash with golden, fine-grained, sweet pulp.
- Spaghetti squashes are cream or yellow, watermelon-shaped squash containing bland, crisp, lightly sweet strands that resemble spaghetti in size and shape.
- Crookneck pumpkins have a smooth, tan skin with a long neck and a bulbous end containing the seeds. They have a flavorful taste and are the easiest variety for food preparation.
Nutrition and Storage
All types of winter squash are excellent sources of vitamin A and have substantial amounts of vitamin C, iron, and potassium. They are low in sodium and modest in calories, averaging between 40 to 80 calories for a 4 oz. serving. Winter squash are usually a good source of fiber.
Uncut winter squash keeps best in a dry, well-ventilated room with temperatures between 50 to 55ºF. Attics or garages are good places to store squash. Do not refrigerate them because humidity and extreme cold hasten decay. At room temperature, 70ºF, the storage time is only a few weeks. Properly stored, winter squash will keep for months.
Winter squash has a tough outer skin or shell, which is often hard to cut. Use a heavyweight, sharp knife and stick into the squash. Pounding with a mallet at the base of the knife helps to crack open the squash. The skin can be softened by placing the squash in a microwave for 1 to 2 minutes on the high setting. Let stand for a couple of minutes before cutting. Baking a squash whole and cutting it open when fork-tender is another option. For crookneck pumpkins, cut off the bulbous end with seeds. Tightly cover the rest of the pumpkin with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the next use. The skin may be removed with a potato peeler prior to cooking or by leaving the skin on and scooping the pumpkin from the skin shell after cooking.
Cooking and Eating
- Bake: Cut the squash in half, remove the seeds, and oil the cut surface. Place the cut sides down in a baking dish in a 350ºF oven and begin testing for doneness after 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Steam: Cut the squash in half, remove the seeds, and place in a saucepan with enough water to steam and begin testing for doneness after 20 to 30 minutes.
- Microwave: Cut the squash in half length-wise and remove the seeds. For a crookneck pumpkin, cut the neck into 1" slices. Put the squash side up and cover the dish with plastic wrap. Cook for
10 to 12 minutes, rotating the dish after 5 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes after cooking.
If the squash is cooked whole, use a spoon to scoop flesh from the skin — a serrated grapefruit spoon works well. At this point, the squash is an excellent vegetable served as you prefer with salt, pepper, butter, brown sugar, grated cheese, soy sauce, or other seasonings.
- Prepared Pumpkin: Use a strainer, food mill, or food processor to puree the cooked squash/pumpkin. This makes for a smooth pulp prepared for use in recipes. Unused prepared pumpkin can be refrigerated or frozen for future use in casseroles, soups, muffins, pies, etc. Freeze in specific quantities to be used in your favorite recipes.
- Squash Seeds: Remove the seeds from the pumpkin fibers with water and put on a paper towel to drain. Put the seeds into a bowl and add 1 tablespoon of oil with salt or soy sauce to taste for
each cup of seeds. Toss the seeds until lightly coated. Lightly oil a baking sheet and spread the seeds in a single layer. Bake at 250ºF stirring occasionally for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.
Try pumpkin with your favorite recipes:
- 1/2 cup prepared pumpkin added to your basic pancake batter.
- 1 cup prepared pumpkin and cinnamon to taste added to your favorite blueberry muffin recipe.
- 1 cup prepared pumpkin and cinnamon to taste added to your favorite nut bread recipe.