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Jessica Cox is a Dietetic Intern at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She recently moved to Nashville from North Carolina, where she received her bachelor's degree in Public Health Nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jessica plans to attend culinary school and enjoys cooking, exploring new restaurants, and hiking.

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H ealthy Table*

Have a Healthy Harvest with Winter Squash and Pumpkins
By Jessica Cox, RD

Bursting with vitamins and minerals, winter squash and pumpkins are good for more than just Halloween jack-o'-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies.

"Bursting with vitamins and minerals, winter squash and pumpkins are good for more than just Halloween jack-o'-lanterns and Thanksgiving pies."

These "cousin" members of the gourd family have a history as rich as their succulent flavor. Squash and pumpkins hail from the Western hemisphere, where people in Mexico were eating squash as early as 5500 B.C. Early colonists in the New World found the Native Americans feasting on these unsightly vegetables. The settlers soon discovered the pleasant taste of these yellow and orange veggies and called them squash, which comes from a Native American word meaning "eaten raw." Pumpkins were so popular in early America that folk songs proclaimed their merits, and, as legend has it, Thanksgiving was once postponed in a Connecticut settlement because the molasses needed to make the beloved pumpkin pie was not readily available.

According to researchers at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, there are thousands of varieties of winter squash, pumpkins, and other edible gourds, the majority of which thrive in Tennessee. They are generally planted in the spring, grow during the warm summer months, and are harvested in the fall, before the first major frost. The most popular varieties of winter squash include acorn, banana, buttercup, butternut, hubbard, spaghetti, and sweet dumpling. The butternut squash, likely the forerunner in any popularity contest, has a sweet, golden flesh and relatively thin skin that can be removed with a vegetable peeler. Acorn squash is one of the most widely-available and smallest varieties. When cooked, the spaghetti variety yields mildly sweet strands resembling its namesake pasta. Pumpkins also come in a number of varieties, including the larger jack-o'-lantern types, and the smaller pie pumpkin varieties, which have a more pleasant flavor and texture than the larger pumpkins.

Winter squash and some pumpkins are available most of the year, but these fall favorites are at the peak of flavor from late September through November. Winter squash and pumpkins are picked when mature, rendering a hard, inedible skin. When choosing a squash or pumpkin, pick one that has a smooth, hard skin free of soft spots or blemishes. Look for a gourd with a deeply colored skin that feels heavy for its size and has the stem in place, which prevents bacterial contamination. These vegetables can be stored in a cool, dry place for up to three months. Avoid refrigerating whole gourds, which accelerates spoilage. To preserve these vegetables beyond three months, you can freeze cooked and pureed squash for use in soups, quick breads, or for a trendy twist, as a ravioli filling.

Despite the origin of the name squash, winter squash and pumpkin varieties must be cooked, and only the tender flesh is eaten. Cooking brings out the natural sweet, nutty flavor of many varieties. Try these cooking methods this fall: Baking Cut gourd in half, remove seeds, and place cut-side down on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 degrees to 400 degrees F for approximately 45 minutes. This cooking method produces the sweetest product due to the caramelization of natural sugars in the flesh. Boiling For quicker cooking, peel, cut into cubes, and boil about five minutes. Boiling may be faster, but it will reduce the intensity of the squash's flavor slightly. Microwaving Cut gourd in half and place cut-side down in a microwave-safe dish. Cover and cook approximately seven to ten minutes, or until tender. Sautéing Cook sliced, diced, or grated squash in broth over medium-high heat for about ten minutes. This method can be used to achieve a crunchy texture. Steaming Cook squash halves or pieces over boiling water until tender.

With an average of less than 80 calories and zero grams of fat per cup cooked, winter squash and pumpkin are both low-calorie, heart-healthy choices that are also rich in many vitamins and minerals. The bright yellow-orange color of these vegetables indicates that they are a good source of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage that can lead to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Most varieties are also good sources of vitamins A and C, which help maintain good vision and strong immunity to help you fight off those winter colds. These edible gourds also contribute fiber, which can help to maintain good bowel function and heart health.

Enjoy the taste of fall this season. Try the following winter squash and pumpkin recipes.

Butternut Squash with Black Beans
Source: SNAP-Ed Recipe Finder; https//recipefinder.nal.usda.gov/
Yield: 6 (1 cup) servings

1 small butternut squash
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
1 small chopped onion
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup water
2 cans (16 ounces each) rinsed and drained black beans
1/2 teaspoon oregano

1. Heat the squash in the microwave on high heat for 1-2 minutes. This will soften the skin.
2. Carefully peel the squash with a vegetable peeler or small knife.
3. Cut the squash into 1/2 inch cubes.
4. Peel and chop the onion.
5. In a large pan, heat the oil. Add the onion, garlic powder, and squash.
6. Cook for 5 minutes on medium heat.
7. Add vinegar and water. Cook on low heat till the squash is tender, about 10 minutes.
8. Add the beans and oregano. Cook until the beans are heated through.

Nutrition Information (per 1-cup serving):
Calories: 120
Total Fat: 1 gram
Saturated Fat: 0 grams
Trans Fat: 0 grams
Cholesterol: 0 mg
Sodium: 270 mg
Carbohydrate: 28 grams
Fiber: 8 grams
Protein: 6 grams

Squash Soup
Source: SNAP-Ed Recipe Finder; https//recipefinder.nal.usda.gov/
Yield: 6 (2-cup) servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium chopped onions
2 medium chopped carrots
2 minced garlic cloves
1 cup canned tomato puree
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth, low-sodium
4 cups winter squash, cooked
1 1/2 tablespoon dried oregano
1 1/2 tablespoon dried basil

1. In a large saucepan, warm oil over medium heat.
2. Stir in onions, carrot, and garlic.
3. Cook for about 5 minutes, covered.
4. Stir in the tomato puree, chicken broth, cooked squash, and herbs.
5. Bring soup to a simmer and cook, covered, for 30 minutes.

Nutrition Information (per 2-cup serving):
Calories: 150
Total Fat: 3 grams
Saturated Fat: 1 gram
Trans Fat: 0 grams
Cholesterol: 5 mg
Sodium: 150 mg
Carbohydrate: 28 grams
Fiber: 7 grams
Protein: 7 grams

Pumpkin Cake
Source: North Carolina Department of Agriculture; https//www.ncagr.gov/markets/commodit/horticul/pumpkin/recipes.htm

Yield: 16 slices

3 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup vegetable oil
4 eggs
2/3 cup water
2 cups fresh cooked pumpkin
1 cup pecans
1 (3 oz) package cream cheese, softened
1 teaspoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 ½ cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon milk

1. Combine flour, sugar, soda, salt, and spices.
2. Add remaining ingredients, mixing well.
3. Spoon batter into a well-greased 10-inch tube pan. Bake at 350°F for 1 ½ hours or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely.
4. Meanwhile, combine all ingredients in a mixing bowl and beat with electric mixer on medium speed until well-mixed.
5. Add as much milk as is necessary to make icing spreadable.
6. Spread icing over cake, and sprinkle with chopped pecans if desired.

Nutrition Information (per slice):
Calories: 500
Total Fat: 23 grams
Saturated Fat: 3 grams
Cholesterol: 60 mg
Sodium: 408 mg
Carbohydrate: 71 grams
Fiber: 2 grams
Protein: 5 grams