The best pumpkins for cooking are not the large, bright orange variety popular for making jack-o-lanterns. Small, orange sugar pumpkins or light brown cheese pumpkins are more flavorful and far less stringy. Pick pumpkins that have a hard rind and are heavy in relation to their size. Be sure to store them in a cool place until ready to use.
Americans often limit their use of pumpkin to pies, breads and desserts that call for pureed pumpkin. This is not the case in other parts of the world. Latin American cooks consider pumpkin a standard vegetable to be used as a side dish and in casseroles. Try steaming, sauteing or even stir-frying strips and cubes of fresh pumpkin.
Cooked pumpkin also can be pureed for use in soups and stews or in place of mashed potatoes in a shepherd's pie. Baked pumpkin halves are delicious stuffed with meat, rice and/or vegetable mixtures.
For a different taste treat this holiday season, try adding raw, grated pumpkin to stuffing for chicken or turkey.
In virtually any recipe calling for pumpkin, you also can substitute winter squash.
Winter squash is the hard-shelled cousin of the zucchini and other summer squash. The large number of varieties available derive their names from the shape, color or structure of the squash; e.g. acorn, butternut, buttercup turban and spaghetti squash. When buying whole squashes, select ones that feel hard, have no soft spots or cracks and seem heavy for their size.
Generally, the easiest way to cook a pumpkin or winter squash is to halve it, scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp, and bake the rest in the rind until tender. A microwave oven can reduce the cooking time from nearly an hour to just minutes.
Sprinkle the halves with your favorite spice (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice or mace) and cook in the microwave with cut side down (or wrapped in plastic) until tender, about 6 to 7 minutes per pound.
Even small pumpkins and acorn squash can be cooked whole in a microwave with just a few pierced holes for steam to escape. After microwaving, let the pumpkin or squash stand five minutes to allow time for the heat within the squash to equalize before serving.
Pumpkin and winter squash can garnish your table and please your family at the same time, providing them with beta carotene, dietary fiber and potassium.
3/4 cup finely chopped green pepper
1/4 cup chopped green onions
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 tablespoons melted margarine or butter
2 cups mashed, cooked pumpkin
14-ounce can plum tomatoes, undrained and chopped
2 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
sour cream, optional
Saute green pepper, green onions and parsley in margarine in Dutch oven about 5 minutes or until tender. Add remaining ingredients, except sour cream; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes. Serve hot soup with a dollop of sour cream, if desired. Yield: 7 cups
Acorn Squash Stuffed with Cranberries and Apples
1 acorn squash
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup cranberries
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped apple
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cold water
Cut unpeeled squash into four rings; remove and discard seeds. Place in a shallow dish and set aside.
In 4-cup measure, microwave at high for 30 to 45 seconds or until melted. Stir in cranberries and brown sugar. Microwave, covered with vented plastic wrap, at high for 2 to 3 minutes or until skins have popped, stirring once. Stir in apple, spoon into center of each acorn squash ring. Cover with vented plastic wrap and microwave at high for 5 to 7 minutes or until squash is tender, rotating halfway through. Drain juices into 1-cup measure and reserve.
Dissolve cornstarch in cold water; whisk in hot juices. Microwave at high for 30 to 45 seconds or until mixture boils and thickens slightly, stirring once. Pour over squash rings. Serves 4.
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Lynn F. Little is an extension educator, family and consumer sciences, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.