Pumpkins come in many varieties. There are Jack-o-lanterns bred for stronger handles for Halloween. There are giant pumpkins; the current world record is an Atlantic Giant of over 2,000 pounds. There are pie pumpkins, heirloom edibles and specialty pumpkins in many different shapes and colors, all to match the autumn landscape.
This year I grew the heirloom pumpkin Musque de Provence. It is a deeply ribbed pumpkin with moderately sweet flesh. In France, cut wedges are sold in farmers’ markets for cooking. I like to call this a Cinderella pumpkin as it resembles her fairy godmother’s magical carriage.
Early colonists ate a lot of pumpkins. Today most people eat pumpkin only from Halloween to Thanksgiving. It is a very healthful vegetable and can help prevent macular degeneration, help boost the immune system and help prevent heart disease and cancer.
Pumpkin contains carotenoids (orange pigments), beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, all powerful antioxidants. Carotenoids help protect the body by neutralizing harmful oxygen molecules known as free radicals. A diet high in antioxidants can help prevent many of the diseases associated with aging. Lutein and zeaxanthin are also found in the lenses of the eye. Studies suggest that eating foods high in these compounds may help block the formation of cataracts. A study at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston found people who ate the most carotenoid-rich foods had a 43 percent lower risk of getting macular degeneration.
A half-cup of canned pumpkin has more than 16 milligrams of beta-carotene, 160 to 260 percent of the daily recommended amount. Research has shown that getting more beta carotene in the diet protects against a variety of cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lungs and colon. This protective effect is enhanced by phenolic acids in the pumpkin that bind to potential carcinogens and help prevent them from being absorbed. Pumpkin is also a rich source of fiber and iron.
In the Blue Zone of Ikaria, Greece, pies or pitas made with pumpkin and longevity greens are a staple. Grate two pounds of peeled pumpkin, place in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Let stand one hour and squeeze the moisture out. Sauté the pumpkin in olive oil with two large chopped onions, one pound chopped spinach and one pound chopped Swiss chard. Use about one cup of olive oil for all the sautéing. Add one bunch each of chopped parsley, dill, fennel leaves, oregano and mint. Season with salt and pepper. Sandwich this mixture between phyllo leaves that have been brushed with one-half cup olive oil in a baking pan. Use about 10 leaves on the bottom and top. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour until lightly browned.