The Alchemical Kitchen: Pumpkins
This month: Pumpkins—Nutrition, selection and storage, as well as how to sprout their seeds, and two fabulous recipes.
by Rebecca Brenner
Nutritional health is not only about the vitamin and mineral content of particular foods. When we slow down and take notice of which foods we’re eating and how we’re preparing them, we may see a long lineage of tradition and folklore enlivening our meals. This lineage gives us the opportunity to connect to place, community and Self.
Every September, as I wander through farmer’s markets and grocery stores, the bright orange pumpkins remind me of the Irish tale of Stingy Jack, my mom and Halloween. As a holistic nutritionist and chef, I have come to appreciate the pumpkin beyond its festive cultural understandings. However, culturally and personally, the folklore will always be a part of my earliest memories.
Each Halloween my Irish mother, Patricia Catherine Mary McDonald, would retell the tale of the Jack O’Lantern. As I carved into my pumpkin, spooning out the gooey pulp and seeds, my mom would introduce Stingy Jack-an old drunk man from a tiny Irish village who played mean pranks on everyone. Stingy Jack was so much of a trickster that he even played a few on the devil.
Most of my mom’s tales of Stingy Jack were fabricated. But many folklorists agree that Stingy Jack did get out of the tricks he played. They also believe, unfortunately for Stingy Jack, that when he died neither heaven nor hell would have him. As my mom and I set our Jack O’Lanterns on the porch, she’d light the candles and describe how Stingy Jack still wanders the earth lighting his way with a hollowed-out turnip and piece of burning coal. And still, many years later, as I set out my own Jack O’Lantern, I imagine Stingy Jack wandering the earth.
When grown, selected and stored properly the pumpkin becomes a vehicle for lively nutrition, localism throughout the winter, and a connection to cooking traditions of the past. Nutritionally, pumpkins are known for their high fiber content and antioxidant load. These synergistic nutrients strengthen the immune system and ward off illness. One of the simplest ways to enjoy the flavor of this fall fruit is to hollow out the pulp and seeds, cut the outer pumpkin into chunks or strips, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, salt, and sage, and slowly bake. When the smell of pumpkin fills your house and the flesh falls easily from the skin, gather your family and friends and enjoy!
Enjoy the seeds as well. In October, many families roast the seeds from their Jack O’Lanterns. However, it is the raw pumpkin seeds that are packed full of essential fatty acids, iron and zinc. Even though roasting brings out the nutty flavor, it destroys the nutrients which are important for immune, heart, and brain health. Once cleaned, dried and refrigerated, raw pumpkin seeds will keep all winter, connecting you to local sources of protein, vitamins and minerals. Toss them into salads and casseroles.
If you’d like to go one step further in seed preparation and storage, try sprouting. Sprouting is the most nutritious way to enjoy pumpkin seeds. Sprouting raw pumpkin seeds enhances the vitamin and mineral content by15-35%. Sprouting also creates a live food which is full of digestive enzymes, helping your gut to assimilate all of the nutrients. Sprouting becomes a way, in our cold Utah winter, to obtain a live, nutrient-dense food-and one that you’ve grown yourself!
How to sprout
What you’ll need:
One-quart Mason jar
Cheesecloth big enough to fit over mouth of Mason jar
Metal jar ring
Raw pumpkin seeds
Fresh filtered water
1. Fill jar1/2-full with raw pumpkin seeds. Cover with water and allow to sit for 24 hours.
2. Drain jar and rinse seeds. Keep damp seeds in jar, place cheesecloth over the mouth of jar, and secure metal jar ring. Place jar upside down, on rack, in direct sunlight.
3. For the next three days, rinse and drain seeds twice a day, placing them back on rack in sunlight.
4. On the fourth or fifth day you should begin to see sprouts. Allow sprouts to grow for two to three days, continuing to rinse twice a day.
5. Enjoy pumpkin seed sprouts on salads, sandwiches or as a small snack.
When possible always choose local, organic pumpkins. This month at the Farmer’s Market, you’ll see piles of pumpkins. Talk to the farmers and learn what variety of pumpkin you are choosing and how it was grown. And then share this information with your friends and family while cooking. This simple process creates a network of people and story, which in turn creates community.
For cooking purposes, look for smaller pumpkins with a soft, dull outer flesh. The stems should still be present and a good pumpkin should feel heavy for its size. (For Jack O’Lantern purposes, I say go for the funkiest shaped globe you can find!)
Autumn is a busy time for the Alchemical Kitchen. Canning, freezing and storing are meditations that will nourish you through the colder months. When you store your pumpkins properly, you’ll you be able to enjoy the soul and spirit of local Utah food all winter long!
Clean and dry the pumpkins completely. Place on a piece of cardboard in a cool room (45-65 degrees). These pumpkins can be kept for three to four months. You can also refrigerate whole pumpkins for up to five months. Also, try creating a homemade pumpkin puree for pies, breads and muffins. You can freeze a puree for up to eight months.
How to preparepumpkin puree
What you’ll need:
One baking pumpkin
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cut pumpkin in half from top to bottom.
3. Remove seeds and pulp, scraping any extra pulp out with a metal spoon.
4. Wrap both pumpkin halves in aluminum foil and place face down on cookie sheet.
5. Bake for 1-11/2 hours, or until flesh "melts" away from the skin.
6. Remove from oven, let cool. Remove skin and cut into pieces.
7. Place bakes pumpkin pieces in a food processor and blend until smooth.
8. Measure puree into freezer bags in 1- or 2-cup portions. Use throughout the winter for cakes, muffins, breads, and pies.
Next spring-late May/early June-plant your raw, dried pumpkin seeds from the previous fall in your garden. They take three to four months to grow. The flowers that will bloom on your pumpkin vine are edible, so toss some of them on your spring greens. Be sure to leave enough to grow into pumpkins, though! Pick your pumpkins in late September or early October and enjoy the process all over again! But in the meantime, pull out your pumpkin puree and try this Pumpkin Bread Cheese Pudding recipe.
Pumpkin Bread Cheese Pudding
I used the cheese pudding recipe from "Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Home Cheeses" by Ricki Carrol as my base. We’ll explore the health benefits of home cheese making in coming articles.
What you’ll need:
2 T. organic butter
6 slices homemade pumpkin bread
1/2 t. apple butter
2 c. cream cheese
2 c. milk
1/2 t. salt
2 T. sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350°.
2. Butter the bottom of a baking dish and cover with a few pieces of pumpkin bread. Lightly cover with apple butter.
3. Cover with a third of the cheese. Repeat bread and cheese layers two more times.
4. Beat together the eggs, milk, sugar and salt and pour over bread and cheese. Bake for 20 minutes. Serve very hot.
My mom was a bit of a drinker and a prankster, but the bulk of her story is what her Irish ancestors brought with them to America. The turnip has become a pumpkin and Stingy Jack a Jack O’Lantern. My mom’s full expression of lineage through food in story has encouraged me to take these qualities into the kitchen. I explore the health benefits of nontraditional (which ironically most times end up being traditional) practices and uses for nutritious food. My monthly nutrition column-The Alchemical Kitchen-for Catalyst Magazine will be an exploration of the lineage, nature and spirit of food, as well as its potential to create change.
Rebecca Brenner, PhD, is a holistic nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health. You can also find her teaching yoga at Park City Yoga Studio and Lotus Leaf Yoga Studio. She looks forward to sharing her experimental and symbolic food practices through the Alchemical Kitchen.