Eat your jack-o-lantern

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Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
NC Cooperative Extension Service
Brunswick County Center

As our weather cools and becomes fall, thoughts turn to pumpkin pie and jack-o-lanterns. Although many folks don’t realize it, pumpkin (like winter squash and sweet potatoes) is a vegetable.
The bright orange color is a dead give-away that pumpkins are full of important nutrients and antioxidants and beta-carotene. Pumpkin is an excellent source of vitamin A, which is an essential nutrient for proper health of eyes, respiratory tract, skin and tooth enamel.
The large round pumpkins that make great jack-o-lanterns are not the best for eating; they are usually stringy and tasteless. Smaller flatter pumpkins are best for cooking. Look for a sugar pumpkin, a pie pumpkin or a cooking pumpkin. Whole pumpkins can be stored for several months if kept in a cool dry place, if mature and the stem is still attached.
It may be tempting to try to do double-duty with a pumpkin; to first have it as a jack-o-lantern and then make it into a pie. Let’s not go there. Like any other food, once it has been cut, pumpkin needs to be kept refrigerated. You should plan to eat or refrigerate pumpkin the same day you cut into it. Once cut, pumpkin will mold within a few days. Think about it. Do you really want to eat something that sat on your front doorstep as a candleholder for a couple of days?
Pumpkin may be prepared several ways: baking, boiling or in the microwave. Once cooked, it can be served mashed or in chunks as a vegetable or pureed to put in other recipes such as soups, breads, pies and cookies. Before you begin, wash the outside surface of the pumpkin to remove any surface dirt that could be transferred to the inside of the pumpkin when you cut it.
Start by cutting the stem off with a sharp knife. Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds and the stringy mass. Save the seeds, if you like, to roast. This is a messy job.

To boil/steam
Cut the pumpkin in large chunks. Rinse in cold water. Place pieces in a large pot with about a cup of water. The water does not need to cover the top of the pumpkin, as the steam will cook the vegetable. Cover and cook for 20-30 minutes. Check for doneness with a fork. Drain in a colander.
To bake
Cut in half or large pieces. Rinse with cold water. Place cut sides down in a baking dish, add 1/4-inch of water and bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until tender.
To microwave
Cut larger pieces in half or chunks. Place cut sides down on microwave safe dish, cover with plastic wrap or lid. Microwave on high power for 15 minutes. Check for doneness. If necessary continue cooking in 1-2 minute intervals until fork tender.
To make a pumpkin puree
When the pumpkin is cool enough to handle, remove the peel. Put the peeled pumpkin in a food processor or mash with a potato masher to make fresh pumpkin puree. This can be used in a recipe calling for sold pack canned pumpkin. Pumpkin puree can be frozen.
You can eat the seeds from inside your jack-o-lantern. When you scrape the insides out, save the seeds. Put them in a saucepan, cover with water and boil until they become translucent. The drain off the water (bits of pumpkin shreds will come off, too), add salt and butter to taste and stir to mix well. Spread the seasoned seeds in a shallow baking pan and roast in the oven at 300 degrees until they are golden brown and crisp. Stir them occasionally as they roast to help them cook evenly.

Several years ago, I found this recipe for “warm family fall meal” that involved stuffing a pumpkin with a cooked meat casserole, baking the pumpkin whole. I made this for family friends and they still talk about the time I put a pumpkin on the table. I believe the original recipe came from the Dairy Council in Michigan. If the filling recipe doesn’t appeal to you, substitute one of your own. Just make sure the meat is cooked completely before you put it into the pumpkin, as it won’t have time to get done during the baking.

Meal in a Pumpkin
1 small to medium cooking or pie pumpkin
1 onion, chopped
2 Tbsps. cooking oil
1-1/2 to 2 pounds ground beef
2 Tbsps. soy sauce
2 Tbsps. brown sugar
1 (4 oz.) can sliced mushrooms, drained
1 (10-3/4 oz.) can cream of chicken soup, undiluted
1-1/2 cups cooked rice
1 (8 oz.) can sliced water chestnuts, drained
Wash the outside of the pumpkin. Cut off the top and thoroughly clean out the seeds and strings, leaving the pumpkin shell. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large skillet, sauté onions in oil until tender, add the meat and brown. Drain the drippings from the skillet. Add soy sauce, brown sugar, mushrooms and soup; simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cooked rice and water chestnuts and heat through.
Spoon mixture into the cleaned pumpkin shell, replace pumpkin top and place entire pumpkin with filling on a baking sheet in oven. Bake for one hour, or until pumpkin is tender.
Place the pumpkin on a serving platter. Remove the pumpkin lid and serve the contents. For your vegetable, scoop out the cooked pumpkin and serve. Add a cold glass of milk and toasty bread to provide a complete meal.