Whether you're pumpkin-obsessed or in need of some seasonal cocktail party trivia, the following tidbits are sure to surprise and fascinate
There Are More Than 50 Varieties of Pumpkin
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The big, round, orange gourds you see at pumpkin patches and buy to make jack-o-lanterns won’t taste so good in your next batch of pumpkin pancakes. "Carving pumpkins tend to be bred for looks, not flavor, so they’re not very sweet, while eating pumpkins are delicious enough to dig into with a spoon," says Jennifer Lee Seagle, a professional botanist and gardener in Half Moon Bay, CA.
Pumpkins bred for jack-o-lanterns have a bigger seed cavity, longer stems, and thinner walls for easier carving, while pumpkins for eating tend to be smaller and more solid. If you want to cook a sweet dish, look for sugar pie or New England pie pumpkins, which are perfect for, well, pies, and for a savory recipe, try blue Hubbard. Carving a jack-o-lantern? You’ll want a Howden or Autumn Gold. For decorative or cooking purposes, pick the large, deeply ribbed musque de Provence or white Valenciano, which has orange flesh.
Green Pumpkin Seeds Are the Naked Version of White Pumpkin Seeds
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The extra work to separate the seeds from the stringy insides when you carve a pumpkin is worth the tasty roasted goodness. The flat white seeds that you scoop out are the unhulled, milder-tasting version of the smaller green seeds, or pepitas, that you see in stores, explains Bethany Thayer, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. To roast the unhulled seeds, simply clean them, toss with a little olive oil and sea salt, and roast at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes. If you want to hull the seeds, after roasting, simply pick the white shell off. Enjoy the white seeds as a snack, and add pepitas to salads, soups, or granola.
Pumpkin Pie Spice Doesn't Contain Pumpkin
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Pumpkin spice (or pumpkin pie spice) is typically made from a combination of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, or allspice. That’s right, actual pumpkin isn’t part of the blend—we just associate the mix with the taste and smell of pumpkin thanks to clever food marketers. [Tweet this crazy fact!]
That means many of the products labeled "Pumpkin Spice"—including Hershey’s Kisses Pumpkin Spice Flavored Candies, Coffee-mate Pumpkin Spice, and the ubiquitous Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte—do not contain any trace of the fruit. For example, the drink is made of "freshly steamed milk, rich and creamy pumpkin-flavored sauce, and warm seasonal spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove," according to the Starbucks website.
Pumpkin Is Easy to Cook
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You don’t need to be Duff from Ace of Cakes to make homemade pumpkin puree for baked goods, smoothies, and soups if you follow Thayer’s simple directions for roasting the gourd: Wash the pumpkin and cut off the stem. Cut it in half and scoop out the seeds (save them for roasting) and fibrous strings. Place the halves whole or cut into chunks on a sheet and roast at 375 to 400 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes until soft.
To make a pie, one smallish pumpkin (about five pounds) will do; most pies call for two cups of puree, and this size pumpkin yields four to five cups. Use the leftover to lighten up other baking recipes by replacing any oil or butter with an equal amount of pumpkin, Thayer suggests.
Every Part of a Pumpkin Is Good for You
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There are plenty of reasons to include pumpkin in your diet in ways beyond pies. With just 50 calories and no fat per cup, fresh puree provides more than twice your daily vitamin A to fortify your vision and immunity, plus fiber and potassium, two nutrients most of us need more of.
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Pepitas are nutritional powerhouses too. A quarter cup boasts 10 grams of protein as well as essential magnesium, iron, and zinc. Just be mindful of portion size since this all comes at 180 calories.
The Best Pumpkin Recipes May Not Be Sweets
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Americans aren’t the only ones crazy for pumpkin. Varieties of the squash show up in hearty curries in Thailand, where they also stuff it with custard for dessert. The Japanese include it in tempura, while in India it’s combined with sugar, cardamom, ghee, dried fruits, and nuts for a sweet dish called kaddu ka halwa. And Latin cultures often roast and mash it with spices such as cumin, nutmeg, paprika, and saffron to serve as a side dish.
You can also make boozy pumpkin. Combine equal parts pumpkin puree and water to create a slurry, then freeze into ice cubes to add to cocktails made with bourbon or whiskey, Seagle says.
Pumpkin Seed Oil Is a Thing
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But you shouldn't cook with it. With a dark green, almost reddish color and nutty flavor, pumpkin seed oil has a low smoke point and will turn bitter if heated. Instead combine it with honey or olive oil and spices for salad dressing, or drizzle it on desserts to give vanilla ice cream and other plain dishes a nutty accent and pretty garnish.
Pumpkin Is a Type of Squash
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What we think of as “pumpkin” has no specific botanical or scientific meaning—it’s simply a common name for any plant in the cucurbita genus, which includes other squash-like fruits (yep, pumpkin is a fruit) such as summer, acorn, spaghetti, and butternut squash, says Matthew Blua, Ph.D., a farmer and former research scientist in Riverside, CA.
In fact, canned pumpkin puree may consist of different varieties of winter squash, not necessarily pure “pumpkin.” Before you rush to return your cans, know that it doesn’t really matter: “There are no differences from a nutritional standpoint between pumpkin and squash,” Thayer says. Even the USDA lumps winter squash and pumpkins together in the same category since they’re so closely related.