The kids are back in school, fall is in the air and it seems pumpkins are everywhere this month! Jack o’Lantern faces appear on all kinds of signs and merchandise from billboards to kids’ socks and, as we move closer to Halloween, the fat orange fruits also begin to occupy patios, porch steps and walkways. What was once just another food has become an autumn standard in American décor. What other fruit can claim that distinction?

Pumpkins, along with the fall-harvested squashes such as acorn and butternut squash, are part of the gourd family of plants and originated in North America. But did you know there are pumpkins grown especially for making soups, muffins, pies and such? They’re called sugar pumpkins (or sometimes, pie pumpkins). Over the last two centuries, they’ve been bred just for cooking. Unlike the carving pumpkins found everywhere, depending on where you live, you might have to do a bit of searching to find them. Sugar pumpkins have a slightly softer skin that’s easier to remove and is not as deeply ridged. The inside of this cooking variety is different too— the flesh is a bit sweeter, more tender, and not as stringy as its decorative cousin.

Kids love to eat something if they’ve had a hand in growing or cooking it, and this season offers lots of learning opportunities. If you’d like to recreate granny’s kitchen for your kids this fall, try cooking up the raw flesh from sugar pumpkins. Raw pumpkin for pies or muffins is usually cooked and then pureed, and a quick internet search will bring up tons of info on how to do that.

Now let’s be honest here– for most of us, making our own pumpkin puree from scratch is more work than we’re willing to do this busy month. Canned pumpkin is easy to use and works just as well in recipes that call for pureed pumpkin. Also, flesh of vitamin-rich, versatile squashes like butternut can often be used interchangeably with pumpkin in soups, casseroles, and stews.

Pumpkin oil is made from the roasted seeds of the pumpkin and is sometimes mixed with lighter oils like canola or olive oil for salad dressings. Drizzle some canola/pumpkin oil on a salad and then crumble some dried herbs like basil, garlic powder, or marjoram top. No need for vinegar! For an Eastern European taste treat, try dipping chunks of fresh French bread in the robust flavor of a warm pumpkin-olive oil mixture.

Creole Mashed Pumpkin

Here’s an easy-to-make Southern-style side dish that’s a flavorful change from mashed potatoes. Full of vitamin A and fiber, pumpkin only has 49 calories per cup too, compared to 116 calories for potatoes!

creolepumpkinCut a small sugar pumpkin in half, removing the seeds and cutting out the stem. Brush with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Place each half cut side down on a plate and microwave on high for about 15-20 minutes. (You can also bake on a rimmed baking sheet for 45 min. at 400 degrees F.) When done, the flesh should be very soft. The exact time varies with the size of pumpkin so check often. Save half the pumpkin for another use (it freezes well).

Scrape out the cooked flesh of half the pumpkin into a bowl and use a potato masher to mash completely. In a skillet over medium heat add 2 Tbsp. of olive oil, then the mashed pumpkin. Stir in one-quarter teaspoon of anise seed, one-quarter teaspoon of ground cumin, a dash of salt, one tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons of real maple syrup. Cook and mash together for a minute, then serve.

pumpkincheesecake470by246Pumpkin Cheesecake

When it’s time to make a sweet dessert, try this recipe for Pumpkin Cheesecake. I love this for holiday celebrations!

1-1/2 c. graham cracker crumbs (see note)
5 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. brown sugar, packed

1/2 c. cottage cheese
1 c. sugar
3 Tbsp. brown sugar, packed
3 Tbsp. corn starch or all-purpose flour
1-1/2 tsp. cinnamon (if can tolerate)
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg (if can tolerate)
16 oz. cream cheese, softened, at room temperature
2 eggs
2 egg whites
1/3 c. evaporated milk
1-1/4 c. canned pumpkin (IC friendly)
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

Mix graham cracker crumbs, margarine and brown sugar in a bowl. Press into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch spring-form pan.

In a food processor or blender, process the cottage cheese until it is no longer lumpy. Set aside for the moment. In a bowl, thoroughly mix together the sugar, cornstarch, brown sugar and spices. Beat the spices and sugars into the cottage cheese. Beat in the softened cheese, eggs, and egg whites. Blend in the evaporated milk, pumpkin, and vanilla. Pour into crust. Bake for 1 hour at 375 degrees F. Refrigerate at least 6 hours before serving.

NOTE: Watch out for boxed graham cracker crumbs – they may have bladder irritating preservatives. It is much safer to make your own from graham crackers. Nabisco’s Low-fat Honey Grahams are a good bet. You can roll the crackers between sheets of wax paper with a rolling pin, or use a food processor to chop them into crumbs.