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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003 02:20 pm

Behold the great pumpkin!


The typical jack-o'-lantern pumpkin weighs 15 to 25 pounds, but pumpkins can range in size from less than one pound to more than 1,000 pounds. How big is a pumpkin that weighs half a ton? The distance around a 1,000-pound pumpkin is about 15 feet. This year the new official world's largest pumpkin weighed a whopping 1,458 pounds. Bruce and Mary Whittier of Henniker, N.H., grew that monster.

A type of squash, pumpkins are a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, which also includes squash, cucumbers, gherkins and melons. In addition to the common orange color, pumpkins also can come in whites, blues, reds, yellows and tans. An unripe pumpkin is green.

Though pumpkins can be grown on every continent except Antarctica, more than 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the U.S. are raised within a 90-mile radius of Morton. The Illinois town bills itself as the "Pumpkin Capital of the World," but other places (including Floydada, Texas; Half Moon Bay, Calif.; and Pikeville, Tenn.) make similar claims. Morton's title may have the most merit: It's home to a Libby's pumpkin-processing plant that's responsible for canning more than 85 percent of the world's pumpkin each year.

Small "pie" or "sweet" pumpkins are the best for cooking. Pie pumpkins have a sweeter flesh and are less stringy than the larger jack-o'-lantern varieties. Pumpkins are 90 percent water, high in fiber, and low in calories, fat and sodium. They contain Vitamin A and B, potassium, protein and iron.

Native Americans were big pumpkin fans: For food, they'd roast long pumpkin strips over open fires. They also dried strips of pumpkin to weave into mats. Nowadays, pumpkins are used in a variety of recipes, including soups, pies, bread and cookies. When steamed (be sure to remove the skin, seeds and fibers), pumpkin makes a delicious and attractive vegetable side dish. Consider substituting fresh pumpkin in recipes that call for winter squash or sweet potatoes.

The flowers and seeds of pumpkins are also edible. Save the seeds from your jack-o'-lantern and roast them for a delicious and nutritious snack. There are a number of ways to prepare roasted pumpkin seeds. Here's one:

• Remove the seeds from the stringy fibers and wash.

• Dry the seeds in the sun, dehydrator or oven (in the dehydrator at 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit for 1-2 hours; in the oven, set on warm, for 3-4 hours).

• Stir the seeds frequently to avoid scorching.

• Take the dried pumpkin seeds, toss with oil and salt to taste, and place in a 250-degree preheated oven for 10 to 15 minutes.

When selecting a pumpkin for cooking or carving, make sure there are no blemishes or decay spots and that the pumpkin still has a stem. Pumpkins without stems usually do not keep well. They can be stored in a cool, dry place away from light for up to two months.

For more information, visit the "Pumpkins & More" Web site at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/pumpkins/index.html.


Make low-fat pumpkin bread


1 cup solid-pack pumpkin
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup plain lowfat yogurt
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup raisins



In large bowl, beat pumpkin, sugar, oil, and yogurt. In medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, soda, cinnamon and salt. Add to pumpkin mixture, stirring just until moistened. Stir in raisins. Pour into a lightly greased 9-inch by 5-inch by 3-inch loaf pan. Bake in oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (preheat first) for about 1 hour or until a wooden toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely. Keeps best if wrapped and stored in the refrigerator. Freezes well. Make 1 loaf, 16 servings.


Nutrient analysis:

Per serving: 106 calories, 2 grams fat, 21 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams protein, trace of cholesterol, 153 milligrams sodium.

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