Pump up the benefits

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2011, 12:00am


As the night darkens and spooks and spirits howl, it's easy to view jack-o'-lantern as just a glowing orange face with a sinister smile. But the end of October brings a bumper crop of nutritious, healthy pumpkins, in all shapes and sizes, which do more than frighten ghouls away.

The pumpkin is an oft-overlooked fruit, but holds untold health benefits. Like carrots, its bright orange flesh contains high levels of beta-carotene, which works as an antioxidant to eliminate toxins from the body, says Denise Fair, a registered dietitian with Central Health Medical Practice.

What's more, the body turns beta-carotene into vitamin A, which is essential for good bone growth, vision, and the cell replenishment that slows ageing.

Pumpkins also contain vitamins C and E, which fight the free radicals that cause cancer and heart disease, and a good helping of potassium. This is an important mineral for the proper functioning of cells, tissues and organs.

The recommended daily serving of the fruit is 1 to 11/2 cups, or about the size of a fist, Fair says.

'Because of its antioxidant potential, pumpkin is one of those foods we should be eating more of. It's low in carbohydrates, so it's OK or diabetics and suits a low-glycemic diet,' she says.

However, while the high-fibre, low-fat food is classed as a fruit, it should be treated as starch, replacing potatoes, yams or sweet potatoes in a dish to avoid starch overload, she warns.

Pumpkin can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, in a pie, bread, muffin, salad, soup or pasta.

Fair, having recently enjoyed pumpkin gnocchi, suggests pur?eing it and using it in lasagne or spaghetti sauce.

Justin Smolev, who created the Atlanta-based Dressed salad chain, loved pumpkin so much he used it for his final exam project in culinary school, creating a five-course meal around the fruit.

He likes to pair pumpkin with wintry vegetables to enhance its hearty flavour. Sweet potatoes, green beans or chickpeas are favourites. Soups, which Smolev says 'should be velvety smooth', are another soothing filler in cooler weather.

But don't forget to spice it up a little. 'The pumpkin has a wonderful earthy flavour, but certainly needs seasoning and/or sugar to enhance the flavour,' Smolev says.

At Dressed, maple syrup and nutmeg are added to pumpkin soup for a touch of sweetness.

Salads and stir-fries are given added oomph with a pumpkin by-product: its seeds. Slowly roasted, they maintain their high levels of monounsaturated 'good' fat, and bring added protein, zinc and iron to the plate, Fair says.

You can add a handful of pumpkin seeds to salads or granola, or eat them on their own as a snack to keep hunger at bay.

Pumpkins grow around the world and come in a variety of colours such as red, white (known as ghosts) and green. Shapes range from squat to round to bulging. Most supermarkets stock a range of imports in addition to seasonal local treasures.

Hong Kong-grown pumpkins, known simply as Chinese pumpkins, are green and pear-shaped, says Todd Darling of Homegrown Foods, which grows organic produce in the New Territories.

When selecting a specimen, shape tells a lot. 'The more pear-shaped, the better,' Darling says. Chinese pumpkins are famed for their sweet taste, and they are available long past the witching hour all the way through to December.