This fall, harness the nutritional power of pumpkin - CNN.com

This is the time of year when pumpkin is iconic. Between Halloween, harvest decorations, and Thanksgiving pie, it's the season's symbol.

Pumpkin's wholesome taste and inviting color complements soups, sweets, and breads while boosting the nutrition of every dish.

Pumpkin offers a good source of beta carotene, an antioxidant that may help prevent heart disease and certain types of cancer; fiber, which aids in digestion and helps lower cholesterol; and potassium, which helps keep blood pressure in check.

One cup of mashed pumpkin weighs in at 49 calories, 2.7 grams of fiber, 1.8 gram of protein, 567 milligrams of potassium, 5116 micrograms of Vitamin-A, 0.17 grams of fat (none of it saturated), and no cholesterol.

A little trivia: A member of the gourd family, and therefore related to various melons and squashes, the pumpkin has long been cultivated in North America. When the Europeans landed here in the 15th century, they found the Indians growing and eating them. The newcomers enthusiastically embraced this vegetable fruit, and pumpkin pie soon became an integral part of Thanksgiving.

Selection tips: Select a pumpkin with tough skin. To test, apply gentle pressure with your fingernail. If you can make a mark, the pumpkin isn't ready for cooking. Your best choice will be brightly colored, blemish-free, and heavy for its size. Also, the smaller the pumpkin, the tastier and more succulent the flesh will be. Look for varieties specifically grown for eating, such as the sugar pumpkin.

Storage tips: Whole pumpkins can be stored at room temperature for up to a month, or in the refrigerator for up to three months.

How to eat them: In general, pumpkin can be substituted for winter squash in just about any recipe -- and vice versa.

Many recipes -- including the delicious ones linked here -- call for fresh pumpkin in a variety of forms. Here's what to do:

When you need fresh, raw, cubed pumpkin: Cut straight down to one side of the stem with a large, heavy knife. With a large spoon, clean out the seeds and pulp. Place the pumpkin half, cut side down, on a cutting board, and remove the peel in small sections, slicing with the knife in a downward motion. Cut the peeled pumpkin into wedges, then into cubes.

When you need cooked pumpkin: Cut the pumpkin in half vertically and remove the seeds and pulp. Place it, cut side down, in a large shallow baking dish. Add 1/2 inch of water, then bake at 350 degrees for one hour or until the pumpkin is crisp-tender when pierced. Let it cool, then cut each half into wedges and peel. When cooked, a 4-pound pumpkin will yield about 4-1/2 cups cubed or 4 cups mashed.

When you need pumpkin puree: Place the whole pumpkin, uncut, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 90 minutes or until tender, occasionally turning the sheet. After the pumpkin has cooled, peel it. Then, remove the seeds and pulp with a large spoon, and process the flesh in a food processor or by hand, with a potato masher, until smooth.

Peak growing season: Fresh pumpkins can be found throughout the fall and winter.