As a kid, I grew up carving pumpkins as a decoration for Halloween and having pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. A long time ago, my father told me that his relationship to pumpkins was quite different from mine. To my father, who grew up on a farm in Sicily, pumpkin was a squash to be eaten. My father said he would saute slices of pumpkin in olive oil; oil from the olives grown and pressed on his family’s farm. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?
I was in Florence, Italy this year for Halloween. It is also fall in Italy and the leaves are turning colors; the days and nights are getting cooler. And Halloween has not been lost to the Florentines. Some restaurants (mostly as a nod to the American tourists) even decorated for Halloween, and pumpkin was featured on menus. A favorite of mine was the pumpkin and pecorino (a hard, tangy cheese made from sheep’s milk) soup eaten at a lovely restaurant on the Via Verrazano.
Beyond the great tastes, we now also know the health benefits of vegetables that are intensely colored, in particular, those that are deep orange, red and yellow. Many of these vegetables are sources of the family of compounds known as carotenoids. Beta-carotene is probably the most well known carotenoid and is used by the body to make Vitamin A. The other carotenoids that have significance in terms of their impact on our health include lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin and cryptoxanthin. Beta-carotene is found in carrots, pumpkins, peaches and sweet potatoes. Lycopene is found in red fruits, such as watermelon, red grapefruit and processed tomatoes. Lutein and zeaxanthin are in pumpkin, dark green vegetables and red capsicums while cryptoxanthin is present in mangoes, oranges and peaches.
It is good to be aware of all this because of the health benefits of carotenoids:
- Build up the immune system
- are an antioxidant that protect cells from environmental pollutants and stress
- may help prevent certain types of cancer
- fight heart disease
- promote clear vision and can help reduce the risk of macular degeneration
Beta-carotenes can also be found in a variety of other winter squash (acorn, hubbard, spaghetti). I, like my father before me, now appreciate pumpkins in a different light, carved up and scary for Halloween but also carved up, delicious and three-star nutritious!