Growth in gardening: The possibilities with pumpkin

This Tuscany- inspired pumpkin pasta sauce is not only packed with nutrients but also with flavor and a natural creaminess. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE URBACH

If you love pumpkin like I love pumpkin, from pumpkin soups, bread, muffins, porridge and pumpkin ravioli, to pumpkin risotto, pumpkin beer, cookies, ice cream, pasta sauce, pumpkin seeds, and let’s not forget my personal favorite pumpkin pie, then this article is for you.

With pumpkin, the options are endless, and endlessly mouthwatering. Not only is fall’s signature squash versatile enough to fit into all the above and more, it also packs some powerful healthy perks like keeping heart health, vision and waistlines in check – as long as you take it easy on the pie, that is. I am sure most of you are familiar with much of the list I just rattled off, but pumpkin seeds and pasta sauce are two I am often asked about. Pumpkin makes a wonderful and easy to prepare and enjoy pasta sauce and I’ll give you the recipe below but first I want to talk a bit more about the pumpkin seeds and the gourd itself.

First off, keep in mind that when you are planning your spring and summer gardens that that is the time to start thinking about growing pumpkins. In fact, in Central Texas, if you want home grown pumpkins for Halloween you really need to ensure the plants in the ground no later than the 4th of July. Usually I am thinking more about my tomatoes in June than pumpkins so I always make a note on my phone to remind me to plant pumpkins.

Pumpkins should be allowed to fully mature on the vines if possible. When fully mature the skin will harden so that a thumbnail will not easily puncture it and the color will change from green to the normal color(s) of the particular type or variety. At harvest, cut them from the vine leaving a few inches of stem on the fruit. Place the harvested pumpkins in a warm, humid location for a couple of weeks to allow them to cure. Then store in a cool location but where they will not be subjected to freezes or frosts.

Pumpkins, and their seeds, are native to the Americas, and indigenous species are found across North America, South America and Central America. They were celebrated foods among many Native American tribes, who treasured them both for their dietary and medicinal properties. The popularity of pumpkin seeds has been traced at least as far back as the Aztec cultures of 1300-1500 AD. Today, Texas is the fourth leading state in commercial pumpkin production, and generates $2.4 million for farmers who plant 5,000 to 8,000 acres annually in the Lone Star state.

Seeds in general, are some of the most overlooked nutrient sources in the plant kingdom, though many are rising in their popularity now more than ever. Seeds such as hemp, chia and flax have been well-known for years for their high omega 3 content and their protein content (plus, talk about that fiber!) But another seed out there comes with the same benefits and other important nutrients too. I am of course, talking about the pumpkin seed. These are truly a gift from nature. They don’t just taste great, but can also serve as a healthy protein option too. Keep in mind that raw, organic darkly colored heirloom pumpkin seeds or raw, organic bright green pumpkin seeds will offer more nutrients than other varieties that are salted, roasted or sprayed with pesticides, so be sure you choose the best source.

If you’re in the mood for a delicious snack that doubles as a phenomenal health food, look no further than pumpkin seeds. With a wide variety of nutrients ranging from magnesium and manganese to copper, protein and zinc, pumpkin seeds are nutritional powerhouses wrapped up in a very small package. They also contain plant compounds known as phytosterols and free-radical scavenging antioxidants, which can give your health an added boost. Because these are high-fiber seeds, they’re able to boost your fiber intake, helping you reach the ideal amount of 50 grams per 1,000 calories consumed. Best of all, because pumpkin seeds are highly portable and require no refrigeration, they make an excellent snack to keep with you whenever you’re on the go, or they can be used as a quick anytime snack at home, too.

While most stores sell pumpkin seeds, it is fun and easy to make your own, and it is even better when you make them from your own garden grown pumpkins. To do so, first remove the seeds from the pumpkin’s inner cavity and wipe them off with a paper towel to remove any excess pulp that may have stuck to them. Spread them out evenly on a paper bag and let them airdry overnight.

Place the seeds in a single layer on a cookie sheet and light-roast them in a 160-170° oven for 15-20 minutes. This 20-minute roasting limit is important. In a recent study, 20 minutes emerged as a threshold hold time for changes in pumpkin seed fats. When roasted for longer than 20 minutes, a number of unwanted changes in fat structure of pumpkin seeds have been observed by food researchers. Roasting for no longer than 20 minutes will help you avoid these unwanted changes and you will still be delighted by the aromas and flavors of the roasted seeds.

Now on to the pumpkin pasta sauce. This creamy pumpkin pasta sauce is addictive. The recipe was sent to me by my friend Lisa, who said she was inspired to create it after a trip to Tuscany where she enjoyed a similar sauce for the first time. Lisa is a life-long vegan so this recipe is also vegan but don’t let that scare you off – it is absolutely delicious! This recipe includes tomatoes in the mix too so the resulting sauce feels quite a bit like a traditional marinara sauce, but with an almost dairy-like creaminess from the addition of the pumpkin and coconut milk. If you don’t like the taste of coconut, don’t worry; you can’t taste it at all.

This recipe is a fun fallinspired twist, with a hint of cinnamon and sage, and sticks to pasta much better than plain old marinara sauce does. I don’t even need a sprinkling of cheese on top! (Though, you’re welcome to do so.) I hope you’ll enjoy this nutrient-rich sauce, my family all wanted to lick our bowls clean!

Tuscany Inspired Pumpkin Pasta Sauce

Makes 2 1/2 cups sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 C. strained tomatoes (tomato puree)
  • 1 C. pumpkin puree
  • 1/4 C. water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 4 tsps pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 C. full-fat coconut milk
  • 1 tsp fresh minced sage, plus extra for garnish

Directions:

  1. Pour the olive oil into a large pot over medium heat, and sauté the onion until tender, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add in the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 more minute.
  3. Add in the tomato, pumpkin, water, salt, cinnamon and maple syrup and bring the soup to a boil.
  4. Once boiling, lower the heat and stir in the coconut milk and minced sage.

So, while many people think of pumpkins as little more than a Halloween decoration or a Thanksgiving pie filling, you now know that it’s time to rethink this plump, nutritious plant. Pumpkin is a highly nutrient-dense food. It is rich in vitamins and minerals but low in calories. There are many ways pumpkin can be incorporated into meals, be sure to enjoy the seeds in oatmeal, smoothies, granola bars, muffins, salads, soups, and whole grain dishes, and even as a substitute for butter. Toss pumpkin seeds into one of your meals each day, or simply enjoy them as by the healthy handful!

Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years. Urbach is a certified Texas Master Gardener from Hays County and is currently serving as the director of training. For more information on the Master Gardener program contact the Hays County AgiLife Extension Service at 512-393-2120.

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