Eat To Live: Trouble in the pumpkin patch

By JULIA WATSON, UPI Food Writer  |  Oct. 6, 2006 at 1:44 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- The weekend September turned into October, neighborhood stoops and steps blossomed with the golden globes of pumpkins.

But there may not be so many around this year. Growers from New England to the Midwest are reporting the physical collapse of some types of pumpkin. You pick them off their stalks and they suddenly sag into your hand, their insides destroyed by rot.

This is bad news for any producer, but especially for growers of the Connecticut field variety, which is considered the traditional American pumpkin.

Apparently the weather we had in August -- a mixture of high heat and torrential rain -- was just what rot likes best. Large pumpkins in some crops have developed two kinds of fungus. A mold spots the shell, then decay begins from the inside out.

Eighty percent of the annual supply becomes available during this month. So if you want to buy them straight from the fields to store for winter use, choose them carefully.

On the whole, this historical vegetable has survived well through the ages. A member of the family that includes cucumbers, squash, watermelons, muskmelons and gourds, the pumpkin (officially a gourd) comes from South America. Evidence of its rind and seed has been unearthed by archaeologists in cliff dwellings that date back to 1500 BCE. Like potatoes, another ancient South American crop, they store well over the winter months if they're kept in cool, dry conditions.

They're packed with beta carotene, which gives them their orange color and converts into vitamin A. It's believed to help reduce certain types of cancer and lower the risk of heart disease.

Pumpkins also contain iron, calcium, vitamin C and some vitamin B. What they're low in is salt and cholesterol (so long as you don't pick a recipe that plumps them full of eggs). And they don't have too many calories, if you don't eat them smothered in butter. One cup of pumpkin has only 40. Two cups of pumpkin would fill you up nicely without costing you too much of your daily calorie intake. Roast the seeds. Some researchers believe that these can help reduce the risk of prostrate cancer. But they make a great snack or addition to a morning bowl of cereal.

Check the ingredients on some anti-wrinkle creams and facial treatment, and you may well find pumpkin listed. Perhaps there's something to this faith in their powers -- pumpkin was once thought to get rid of freckles and to cure snakebite.

While stews make a wonderfully soothing fall and winter meal, they are distinctly brown, which can be a little depressing. So cook pumpkin to go with them. It positively glows on the plate on gloomy days.

And we haven't even mentioned how delicious it can be. Nigel Slater, whose Kitchen Diaries ($40, Penguin USA) makes a perfect present, has created a pumpkin soup with dal lentils that he says "both whips and kisses" and is a wonderful change from the usual. This recipe is adapted from his.

-- Dal and pumpkin soup

-- Serves 4

-- ½ pound pumpkin

-- ½ pound split red lentils (from Asian supermarkets)

-- 1 small onion plus 2 medium for the topping

-- 2 cloves garlic plus 2 for the topping

-- a walnut-sized knob of fresh ginger, peeled

-- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric

-- 1 teaspoon chili powder

-- small bunch cilantro, roughly chopped

-- 2 tablespoons groundnut or vegetable oil

-- 2 small hot red chilies

-- Peel and roughly chop one onion, then add with 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed, the ginger cut into thin shreds, the lentils and 2½ pints water to a medium heavy-bottomed pan, stir and bring to the boil before reducing to an enthusiastic simmer.

-- Stir in the turmeric and chili powder, season with salt to taste, cover and simmer 20 minutes.

-- Bring a pan of water to the boil and add the pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut in chunks, and boil 10 minutes till tender, then drain.

-- For the topping, peel the remaining onions in thin rings, peel and finely slice the garlic, slice the chilis in two, deseed and slice finely.

-- Add the oil to a frying pan and gently cook the onions till they start to color, then add the garlic and chili and continue cooking, stirring, till the onions turn deep gold, then remove and drain on paper towels.

-- Remove the lid from the lentils, turn up the heat and boil hard for 5 minutes, then add the drained pumpkin and blend in batches till smooth.

-- Season to taste if necessary, stir in the chopped cilantro, then pour into warmed bowls and top with a tablespoon of the onion mixture.

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