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Rethink those high-calorie pumpkin lattes

BY JENNIFER MOTL

Pumpkin fever is on—a friend is stockpiling pumpkin-spice coffee creamer, and eateries such as Panera Bread, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts all offer pumpkin-spice coffee drinks this time of year.

Pumpkin-flavored coffee offerings have risen 400 percent in the last five years. But even though they’re yummy, I hesitate to splurge on these drinks. They pack 350 to 400 calories in just 16 ounces, about as many calories as a regular order of french fries.

Yet it’s easy to make your own pumpkin-spice latte at home using real pumpkin instead of pumpkin flavoring. And the homemade version tastes fresher, has more nutrients and fewer calories, and saves a lot of cash. (See my recipe for a healthier latte at the end of this column.)

This time of year, you can make so many different dishes with real pumpkin, such as pumpkin custard (lighter and even more delicious than pie), savory curried pumpkin bisque, and garlic-roasted pumpkin seeds.

There are plenty of reasons to indulge in foods made from pumpkins.

PUMPKIN PROTECTS SKIN

Pumpkins are packed with carotenoids that protect the skin and eyes, so take note, future beauty queens. And Chinese researchers found that men who ate more pumpkins had a lower risk of prostate cancer.

Pumpkins’ orange glow is due to beta carotene. Unlike the pill form of beta carotene, it’s hard to overdose on pumpkins. There are a few cases of folks who ate huge amounts of pumpkin for months or years and turned orange, but their skin returned to its normal shade after they ate normally.

Pumpkins, like oat bran, are rich in soluble fiber, which helps reduce cholesterol levels. Pumpkins also may be soothing to folks with Crohn’s disease, according to a New Zealand study. (Talk with your physician before changing your diet if you have Crohn’s.)

SEEDS HELP THE HEART

It’s not just the orange pumpkin flesh that’s healthy. Scientists are studying pumpkin seeds for their possible effects in lowering cholesterol and blood sugar.

Pumpkin seeds, like flax seeds and walnuts, contain alpha-linolenic acid. This omega-3 fat is considered essential for health. Omega-3 fats protect the heart and may reduce the risk of depression. They also also reduce asthma and allergies, according to scientists at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Pumpkin seeds also are rich in iron. So the next time you buy a pumpkin, consider saving the seeds.

BEYOND ORANGE

There are dozens of varieties of pumpkins and winter squash, most of which can be used interchangeably in recipes, although the flavors may vary slightly.

I like the traditional small pie pumpkins, but I also enjoy tan, pear-shaped butternut squash and beige, ribbed Seminole pumpkins. All three squashes have rich orange flesh, but I think the Seminole pumpkins taste extra sweet, almost buttery.

You also may want to experiment with other winter squashes, such as the warty, blue-skinned Hubbard, which has tasty orange flesh, and the small, green-skinned Turban and acorn squashes.

All winter squashes are in season now and are fairly inexpensive at farmer’s markets even though the drought affected crops somewhat.

EASY TO COOK

People have cultivated squashes in the Americas for at least 10,000 years, perhaps beginning in the Peruvian Andes, according to scientists.

The first pumpkin pies shared between Indians and the Pilgrims probably were different from today’s pies. Colonists probably hacked the tops off pumpkins, scooped out the seeds, and filled the squashes with milk, spices and honey, then roasted them in a fire, according to the Virginia Pumpkin Growers Association.

When cooking squash in a modern kitchen, we have it a bit easier. There are just four steps: slice, scoop, cook and peel.

If you’re having trouble slicing a squash in half, try microwaving the whole squash for four minutes to soften the shell slightly. Some folks like to use a serrated bread knife, feeling that it is less likely to slip, but I prefer my regular chef knife.

Next, scoop out the pumpkin seeds and stringy goop. Save the seeds to toast later if you like.

The third step, cooking, can be done several ways. I prefer to roast the pumpkin halves, with the cut sides facedown in a glass casserole dish, at 400 degrees for 40 minutes or until the halves start to blister and collapse. Then I remove the squash, cool slightly, and scoop the soft flesh out with a large spoon, leaving the shells behind.

If you don’t want to roast the pumpkin, you can cut it into strips and steam or microwave it, then scrape the flesh off the shells.

Instead of buying canned pumpkin, I like to purée roasted pumpkin in the blender. Then I can use it in pumpkin pies, soups and pumpkin lattes. Whatever I don’t use immediately, I freeze in ice cube trays and transfer to freezer bags.

Pumpkins are inexpensive, packed with nutrients that protect the heart and skin, and can be used in soups, desserts and seasonal treats like the pumpkin spice latte recipe below.

Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte

Makes one serving

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup 2 percent milk
  • 2 tablespoons pumpkin purée (fresh or canned)
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup strong brewed coffee
  • 1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (or 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon plus a dash each of ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves)

Directions:

  • In saucepan, heat all ingredients over medium, whisking constantly.
  • When it begins to steam but not boil, remove from heat. (Optional step: if desired, carefully transfer to blender, cover, and blend on high until frothy.)
  • Serve warm.

Nutrition Facts: 152 calories, 5 grams fat, 3 g saturated fat, no trans fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 107 mg sodium, 19 g carbohydrate, 9 g protein, 40 percent daily value of vitamin A, 30 percent of calcium, 3 percent of vitamin C, 2 percent of iron.

Jennifer Motl is a registered  dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now  lives in Wisconsin.  She welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at healthyliving@freelancestar.com.

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