By Leslie Younes

Pumpkins are believed to have originated in North America, the earliest found in the form of seeds from related plants in Mexico dating back between 7000 and 5500 B.C. The name pumpkin originated from the Greek word pepon, which was changed by the French to pompon and then again by the English into pumpkin.  Native Americans used this fruit (anything that has seeds inside is classed as a fruit) for food and also dried strips of it to weave into rugs and clothing.  Along came the Pilgrims and we know the rest.

Pumpkin is surprisingly low in calories, although very satisfying, which is an unusual combination.  It is very useful for people trying to reduce their weight in a healthy manner.  For example, one cup of boiled, drained pumpkin yields only 49 calories and is loaded with all the good stuff like protein, fiber and those energy-loaded carbohydrates.  With 37 mg of calcium and iron in just one cup, there’s also 22 mg of magnesium and a whopping 564 mg of potassium — compare that to 467 mg in a large banana.  There is zinc, which balances blood sugar levels and supports the immune system, plus selenium, vitamin C and vitamin A, which guards the immune system and also is vital in extending the health of our eyesight. It also contains vitamin E, which is good for the skin and is also an antioxidant and anti-aging agent, niacin, which helps to reduce cholesterol, and folate, which is food for the brain.  The seeds of the pumpkin have a much higher concentration of zinc than the pulp.  The Latin word for pumpkin seeds is pepitas. These can be bought plain or salted in most stores next to the peanuts and can be used in most green salads, or moles in Mexican cuisine.  Last, but not least, pumpkin or any orange or reddish vegetable, is packed with beta carotene, a carrier of vitamin A.

Let’s begin the journey from the Americas with

Pumpkin Soup with Gruyere

1, 5-6 lb pumpkin, to yield about 8 cups cubed flesh, without skin or seeds

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1 large yellow onion, finely chopped

6 cups vegetable stock

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 cups light cream

2 Tbs. grated orange zest (use a microplane, foolproof)

2 Tbs. fresh orange juice

1 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

1 tsp. ground ginger

3/4 lb. Gruyere or Swiss cheese, shredded

salt and ground white pepper to taste

2 Tbs. finely chopped fresh chives for garnish

In a large saucepan, melt the butter, add the onion and sauté until it begins to turn golden, then add the stock, chopped pumpkin and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered until tender for about 30 minutes. Discard the bay leaf.

Puree the soup, then stir in the cream, orange zest, orange and lemon juices, nutmeg and ginger.  Reserve a handful of the cheese for garnish and sprinkle the rest into the soup. Stir over low heat until cheese melts and blends. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then garnish with the remaining cheese and chives and serve warm.

This recipe serves 10. It can be frozen. 

Next, down South to Mexico where you will savor

Roasted Pumpkin Oaxaca style

For this, a small pumpkin is preferable. You can buy grey or green skinned, as opposed to the usual orange.  The grey or green ones have deep orange flesh, therefore yielding more beta carotene and vitamin A.

2 – 3 lb pumpkin

1/4 Cup butter, melted

2 tsp. hot chili sauce

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground allspice

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

chopped fresh cilantro to garnish

a classic fresh tomato salsa and crème fraiche to serve

warm tortillas

Preheat oven to 425. Cut the pumpkin into large pieces, as you would  with a honeydew melon, leaving the skin on. Scoop out and discard the seeds and the fiber. Put the pumpkin in a roasting pan. Combine the salt and the spices. Sprinkle the mixture on the pumpkin. Mix the melted butter and the chili sauce and drizzle evenly on the pumpkin pieces. Roast for about 30 minutes or until the flesh becomes very soft when pressed gently and the pumpkin is golden. Serve warm with tomato salsa and crème fraiche.  This combination is very nice in warm tortillas with fresh cilantro.

This recipe serves six.

Let’s head east to Europe where they enjoy Whole Wheat Pumpkin Bread on the afternoon tea table in England and the Yule Tide table in Scandinavia and Germany.

2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, plus extra for dusting

2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. ground ginger

1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp. salt

2/3 cup unsalted butter at room temperature.

2 cups sugar

2 cups mashed cooked pumpkin

4 eggs

2/3 cup water

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Pre-heat oven at 350, grease two loaf pans and dust with flour.

Stir together the flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves nutmeg and salt. Set aside and in another bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until blended. Beat in the pumpkin, eggs and water until completely mixed. Add the combined dry ingredients and stir just until blended. Stir in the raisins and walnuts.  Pour the batter into the two prepared pans and spread evenly. Bake about one hour or until a thin wooden skewer inserted into the center of the loaves comes out clean.  Allow to cool in the pans for 10 minutes before turning them out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Over in Italy, the Risotto is a favorite staple.  Here’s a great recipe using pumpkin, butternut squash or any variety of dark orange-fleshed squash.  Also the blossoms of the squash are wonderful in this risotto if you grow them yourself because they need to be perfectly fresh.

Risotto with Squash, Oyster Mushrooms and Parmesan

1 1/2 lb seeded, sliced orange squash or pumpkin

1/4 cup unsalted butter or mixture of butter and olive oil

2 cups oyster mushrooms, sliced

1/4 cup chopped shallots

2 large cloves garlic

2 tsp. chopped fresh basil

1/2 tsp. dried summer savory

1 cup Arborio rice (the type is critical to Risotto making)

1/4 cup white wine

3 cups hot chicken stock (better than boullion)

1/3 cup grated parmesan

1/4 cup chopped chives

salt and white pepper

In a 375 oven, bake squash for 40 to 45 minutes, until tender but not mushy. Cut away the skin. Dice into 1/2″ pieces. Reserve 1 1/4 cups for risotto and keep it warm.  Heat one tablespoon of butter and/or oil, add mushrooms and sauté for about five minutes, until slightly browned.  Remove from pan. Add remaining three tablespoons of butter and/or oil, then shallots, garlic, herbs and rice and sauté for three to five minutes until rice is translucent. Add wine and continue to simmer until wine is absorbed, then add 1/2 cup chicken stock and cook until liquid is absorbed, stirring constantly. Continue with this procedure in small amounts and stir until the liquid is absorbed into the rice each time before adding more liquid. In the last five minutes, add the cheese along with the reserved squash and mushrooms and stir thoroughly. (You can add the fresh squash flowers at this point.) When the rice is al dente, remove from the heat and stir in chives. Season to taste, and serve warm.

This recipe serves six as an appetizer.

You are now so close to the Mediterranean that you can get to the Middle East and Asia in no time.. Here there are myriad uses of this versatile fruit.  A very tasty and easy staple comes from Afghanistan. It’s a recipe I have tweaked over the years and have used many times for family meals with great success.

Boolawnee Fried Pastries

Makes about 30 and it can be halved

1 package ready-made flaky pastry from the frozen section of any supermarket

Roll this out thinly on a floured surface and cut out circles in order to make

little pastries by folding one side over a filling to form a half moon.  The size of these is entirely up to you for appetizer or main course.

For the filling you will need:

2 leeks, white part chopped finely


pinch of hot red pepper

a little butter/oil mixture

1 cup steamed pumpkin, cut into small dice

4 oz. ground lamb or beef

2 tsp. dried mint

1 cup Greek yogurt

Oil for frying.

To prepare the filling:

Sauté the lamb or beef in a little oil/butter mixture until it has lost its pink color.  Do not brown or allow it to become dry.

To this, add the finely chopped leeks and sauté until they are translucent and limp, about two minutes.

season with salt and a little red pepper. Remove from heat and stir in the steamed pumpkin and test for seasoning.

Depending on the size of the pastry you have decided to make, place sufficient filling on one half of the round and fold over to make a half moon. Make sure that the seal is tight by using a little egg to glue the edges together.  The remaining egg can be used as a glaze on top.

The pastries can be either deep fried or baked in the oven at 375 until fluffy and golden.

Serve hot with Greek yogurt and a generous sprinkle of dried mint.

Now we are coming to the home stretch and land in Thailand before our final stop in Australia.

Here, they steam a custard in the pumpkin.  It is called Sankaya

3/4 cup thick coconut milk, found in the can in most stores.  Do not substitute low fat

1/3 cup brown sugar if Palm Sugar is not available.  The Mexican  Panela cone sugar can be a substitute.

3 eggs

a few drops of rose or orange blossom water (optional)

1 medium-sized pumpkin

Beat the eggs slightly with the sugar and mix with the coconut milk, stirring until the sugar is dissolved, then flavor with rose or orange water if desired.

Take the top off the pumpkin, scrape out the seeds and the spongy tissue and leave the inside very smooth with about one inch of flesh on the inside.  Strain the custard and pour into the pumpkin, coming just to the top. Steam for one hour or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool, chill and serve cut into slices, so that there is a portion of custard surrounded by pumpkin. Run a knife around the edge of each slice and remove the skin. You can serve this with sweetened coconut milk if desired, by stirring sugar syrup into coconut cream until the sweetness is just right for you.

This should serve six to eight  people

This brings us to Australia, a land which has taken from a variety of cultures and ethnic diversities and made their very own cuisine from it. Here is an interesting and tasty recipe with lamb which is their main meat source.  It is written in ‘Australian’ to give it some color.

Rosemary Lamb Shanks with Dates, Pumpkin and Orange

Serves four guys or 8 Sheilas

season 1 1/2 lb mutton chunks or lamb shanks with salt and black pepper

2 Tbs. sunflower or olive oil, for brushing

2 large onions, cut into 4 thick discs and peeled

1 tsp. ground ginger

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. coriander

1 tsp. cumin

4 strips orange peel

10 semi-dried dates

3 sprigs rosemary

1 tsp. caster sugar (normal white sugar)

2 cups lamb or beef stock

good pinch saffron (optional)

3 bakers (Idaho potatoes)

1 medium Kabocha or Crown Prince, peeled and cubed

   (small grey or green pumpkin, the Kabocha can be bought easily and is a delicious and deeply colored squash)

Pre-heat oven to 350.  Place the seasoned lamb in a casserole and sauté gently in oil until brown on all sides. Remove and then place the onion slices across the bottom of the pot, then pop the meat back on top.  If you are using shanks, make sure the bone projects up. Sprinkle the spices over everything and tuck the pieces of orange peel, the dates and the rosemary sprigs around the meat then dust with the sugar. Pour in enough stock to just cover the onion layer. Sprinkle the saffron in to the pockets of juice. Cover the pot and bring to a bubble on the hob and then place in the oven and leave to simmer for about 2 1/2 hrs. Meanwhile, slice the bakers into fine round discs. Prepare the squash in cubes. When the meat is cooked, place the squash around the shanks and circle with overlapping potato discs. Brush the bakers with oil and sprinkle with salt and a good grind of pepper, then bake for another 45 minutes to one hour until the potato is cooked and crisp.  This is a great casserole and the meat and its glorious juices can be mopped up with bread.

Squash can be found in small quantities at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods pre-cubed in bags in the fresh produce department and if you don’t have time to peel and seed the real thing and fancy something sweet, there is always the recipe for pie on the back of the can.

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