As widespread and scary as jack-o'-lanterns are this time of year, it's important to remember that pumpkins are more than just a decorative item.

Not only are they an exceptional source of vitamin A, but they contain a variety of other important vitamins and minerals, along with a good supply of dietary fiber.

When selecting a pumpkin, it is important to pick one that is heavy in relation to its size with a good orange color and a hard rind. Reject any cut or severely bruised pumpkins. At home, keep your pumpkin in a cool place until you are ready to use it.

To get to the tender flesh inside, cut the pumpkin in half and scrape out the seeds and strings. Place the halves in a long, heavy roasting pan with the shell side up, and bake in a 325 degree oven for about an hour, or until the pumpkin shell begins to fall in and the pulp is very tender. After it cools, scrape out the pulp and process it in a blender or food processor until smooth.

Use the puree in any number of your favorite seasonal treats, such as creamy pumpkin pie, lightly sweet pumpkin bread, and spicy, rich pumpkin soup.

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Pumpkin adds color, texture and mellow flavor to any of your favorite soup, stew or chili recipes.

Make a hearty Harvest Bean Stew by sauteing a thinly sliced onion and a minced garlic clove in oil with dried oregano and chili powder. Add chopped tomatoes and simmer five minutes Transfer the mixture to a large casserole dish and add chicken stock and pinto beans that have been soaked overnight and drained. Cover the dish tightly and bake at 375 degrees for an hour and a half. Remove the pan from the oven, and add a diced green pepper, cubed pumpkin and corn kernels. Bake for an hour, or until the beans and vegetables are tender. To thicken the stew, mash about half the beans and stir the entire mixture thoroughly before serving.

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Boost the flavor of plain baked chicken with a pumpkin and lentil saute. Saute a finely chopped onion in a large saucepan until soft. Add lentils and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for ten minutes. Add peeled, cubed pumpkin, along with lemon juice, minced fresh parsley, ground ginger, freshly ground black pepper and ground cumin. Stir thoroughly, cover and simmer until the pumpkin is tender.

Pumpkin Nutrition Facts
For 1 cup cooked, boiled and drained pumpkin, without salt
Calories 49
Protein 2 grams
Carbohydrate 12 grams
Dietary Fiber 3 grams
Calcium 37 mg
Iron 1.4 mg
Magnesium 22 mg
Potassium 564 mg
Zinc 1 mg
Selenium .50 mg
Vitamin C 12 mg
Niacin 1 mg
Folate 21 mcg
Vitamin A 2650 IU
Vitamin E 3 mg

Dana Jacobi