Pumpkins and Gourds

Pumpkins in the Americas

Autumn means it's time for pumpkins--roasting pumpkin seeds, making pumpkin pies and pumpkin soup, and more. Pumpkins and many other types of winter squash are an excellent source of Vitamin A and a good source of iron, magnesium, and folic acid.

Pumpkin is a relative term. Botanically speaking, the word pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is used for both pumpkins and winter squash as both belong to the gourd or Cucurbitaceae family. However, there is a distinct difference between the two when it comes to culinary and cultural purposes. More than 100 varieties of pumpkins and winter squash are grown for their decorative value or use as Jack O'Lanterns at Halloween (what most of us refer to as pumpkins), the production of pumpkin seed oil, or for eating (what most of us call winter squash).

Archaeological evidence suggests cultivation of the wild squash occurred in 8000 BC and it is the oldest known cultivated species in Mesoamerica. However, the orange squash that is referred to as pumpkin (C. pepo var. pepo) is most likely native to North America and cultivated by the indigenous people living there. By the time the early settlers arrived in colonial America and discovered this new food (actually a fruit not a vegetable), Native Americans were already growing several varieties of pumpkins, squash, and gourds.

Commercial pumpkin filling is usually made with winter squash and not pumpkin; however if you are baking a pumpkin pie or cake from scratch, be sure to use the orange pumpkin. The slightly drier flesh will make a better pie or cake than the more moist flesh of the winter squash. For mashing, baking, soups, stews, and gratins, use a winter squash such as butternut or acorn. Squash pairs well with butter, cream, sage, garlic, salty cheeses, and toasted nuts.

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