Becky Dickinson delves into the history and health benefits of the pumpkin
Nothing symbolises autumn quite like the sight of giant orange pumpkins. And of course, Halloween wouldn’t be complete without ghoulish lanterns, carved from these horticultural wonders.
A pumpkin is really a squash, and comes from the same family as the cucumber. As well as traditional orange ones, you can also get blue, green and white varieties. And yes, pumpkins are technically a fruit, not a vegetable.
The idea of leaving an eerie, glowing face on the doorstep has been around for centuries and was said to ward off evil spirits.
In the early days, turnips containing a burning lump of coal were used, until it was discovered that pumpkins were far easier to carve and the coal was replaced with a candle.
Medicinal myths surrounding pumpkins also abound, from relieving burns, to removing freckles, to curing snake bites.
The reliability of some of these claims may be debatable, but pumpkins are known to contain the immune boosting vitamin C, as well as vitamin A, which is important for good skin, healthy vision and growth. What’s more, these are both antioxidant vitamins which may help keep cancer cells at bay and stave off aging.
Both the seeds and flesh of pumpkins contain potassium, a vital mineral in heart health, energy production and muscle function. Pumpkin seeds are also rich in the amino acid, tryptophan, which is important in the production of serotonin – our so called ‘happy hormone.’ To top it all, pumpkins are high in fibre and very low in calories.
Aside from their nutritional benefits, at Halloween glowing pumpkins are an invitation to trick or treaters. But lanterns aren’t the only thing you can do with pumpkins. From growing to cooking, carving to crafting, pumpkins are packed with possibilities and offer a myriad of fun activities for children.
Carving your pumpkin
Whether you’re aiming for something simply scary, or a detailed work of art, the rules of pumpkin carving are the same.
- Cut the lid. Slice off the top of the pumpkin, angling the knife towards the centre of the pumpkin. The idea is to make a lid that can be replaced once you’ve finished carving.
- Clean it out. Scoop out the seeds, stringy bits and mush from inside the pumpkin. Put the seedy goo to one side. Next scrape away chunks of the harder flesh until the wall of the pumpkin is about 3cm thick. Keep the flesh for cooking later.
- Add the face. Either draw your face straight onto the skin, or draw it on paper first and tape it to the pumpkin. Prick holes along the lines of your design into the pumpkin skin, so you end up with a series of join the dots to carve into, then remove the paper. Let your imagination run free – why stick to faces? Try animals, letters or even a pumpkin foetus!
- Carve. Cut out your shapes with a pointed saw-blade knife, using a gentle, but firm, sawing action. Obviously, this is a job for grown-ups. You may need a few different-sized knives. Any pieces that break off can be reattached with a toothpick.
- Light. Place a tealight in the base of your masterpiece. Cut a small chimney hole in the lid to let out heat and smoke.
Cooking your pumpkin
Don’t let all that flesh go to waste. For an autumnal warmer, try this deliciously simple pumpkin and sage soup.
- Place your pumpkin flesh in a baking tray with a handful of torn sage leaves and a few cloves of garlic. Season, then drizzle with olive oil.
- Roast in the oven at 180 degrees/Gas Mark 4 for around half an hour.
- When the flesh is completely soft and cooked, simply blitz it all together with the garlic and sage in a food processor. The pumpkin should have released a fair amount of liquid, so pour that in too. As pumpkins are around 90 per cent water, you shouldn’t need to add any stock. And that’s all you need for an amazingly easy, rich and velvety soup. For a sweet treat, pumpkins are also great in cakes and pies.
Growing a pumpkin
Don’t throw your seeds away. Wash, dry and save a few in a safe place to grow your own pumpkins next year.
Keep the seeds until Spring, then plant them in individual pots. When the seedlings have a few leaves and all chance of frost has passed, plant outside. If you’re short of space or don’t have a garden, look out for miniature varieties of pumpkin like ‘Baby Bear’, ‘Jack Be Little’, ‘Munchkin’, and ‘Sugar Pie’ which can be grown in containers and are as cute as their names suggest.
If you haven’t managed to grow your own pumpkins this year, then why not visit a Pick Your Own Farm instead, like Crockford Bridge Farm in Addlestone, Surrey? There’s a sizeable pumpkin patch where you can hunt for your own auburn globes.
Decorating your pumpkin
Pumpkin seeds make great craft activities. Kids will love sloshing around in the slimy fibres to find the hidden seeds.
Once you’ve got them, rinse and dry, then use them to create seed pictures, by sticking them into shapes of flowers, animals or whatever takes your fancy. You can even make vampire fingernails.
After all that, if you have any seeds left over, they can be roasted in the oven to make a delicious seasonal snack.
Toss with olive oil and salt, then spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Cook at 140 degrees/Gas Mark 1 for around 45 minutes until the seeds turn golden brown.
Personalise your pumpkin
Don’t stop at just growing pumpkins, you can even name them. If you’re growing your own pumpkins, wait until the fruits are about the size of a small melon or large grapefruit. Then carve your children’s names into the skin using a nail or small knife.
The cuts should just break the skin and not cut into the flesh. As the pumpkins swell, children will be amazed at how their names grow too.
The possibilities of pumpkins really are endless and mouth-watering. What will you do with yours this autumn?