Fall is here and temperatures are dropping so get ready to visit some of the hardest working farms in Frederick County.

Homegrown Hay Days, traditionally held during the third weekend of October, is happening in 2020. Participating farms are stepping it up so put on your mask and enjoy a Frederick County tradition.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 17 and 18, area farms will open up their doors. There’s no registration or ticket required. Travel the countryside and stop at one or all 21 of them! For a complete list of farms and events visit http://www.homegrownfrederick.com/homegrown-haydays.

The self-guided farm adventure showcases everything from alpacas to pumpkin carving to wine tasting. Each farm hosts a variety of special activities and events, so there’s plenty to do for every age. I’m looking forward to a hay ride to pick the perfect pumpkin. Not only is pumpkin an ideal fall decorations, but a noteworthy addition to a healthy diet.

Pumpkin is nutrient rich providing significant amounts of Vitamin A and several carotenoids, most familiar being beta-carotene. Dark, leafy green vegetables and red, yellow and orange vegetables contain beta-carotene; the darker the color the richer the source. Pumpkins are the highest vegetable source of beta-carotene. Vitamin A is crucial for vision, maintaining healthy cells, fighting infections, and promoting growth and development. Carotenoids play a role in prevention of certain kinds of cancer and other diseases.

Two other important carotenoids found in pumpkin are lutein and zeaxanthin; studies suggest that increased intake of lutein lowers risk for age-related macular degeneration, the number one cause of blindness for people over 55. People with the highest intakes of these two carotenoids also have a decreased risk of cataracts. Other advantages for adding pumpkin to your family meals are the fiber (7 grams) and potassium (500 mg) it provides in a one cup serving.

While pumpkin picking, realize there are two types. The small ones, 8 to 10 inches in diameter, have a fine texture, sweet flesh, and are ideal for cooking, giving a better flavor than the large varieties. The jumbo or field type, which are 12 inches or larger and weigh 20 to 40 pounds, have a coarse-texture and dry flesh and are best left for decorating.

Pumpkins should be harvested when the rind is hard and the vine begins to deteriorate, but before a heavy frost. One pound of raw pumpkin yields three-fourths to one cup cooked, mashed pumpkin. To prepare pumpkin you can bake, boil or steam it.

To bake, wash and cut in half to remove the seeds and stringy portion. Place cut side down in a pan and bake at 350°F for about an hour or until tender. Scoop out the flesh and mash with a sieve, mill or blender.

To boil or steam pumpkin, cut into small pieces, peel and cook, until soft. To microwave one whole pumpkin (2 pounds) or pieces of a larger pumpkin, pierce skin of pumpkin. Place on a paper towel. Cook 7 minutes and turn over once. Cut in half, and remove, peel and seed center. Cut pumpkin into chunks, cook pumpkin in a 1-quart covered glass casserole 6 or more minutes, or until tender. Stir halfway through cooking. The mashed pumpkin is now ready for making pies, cookies, bread, soup, custard or a variety of vegetable dishes. Don’t forget to save the seeds and toast them for a snack.

If you have too much pumpkin to use right away, try freezing it. Just cool the mashed pumpkin by placing the pan containing the pumpkin in cold water and stir occasionally. Package leaving ½ inch headspace. Seal and freeze.

If you can’t make it to the Festival, you might try one of the multitude of PUMPKIN SPICE products in the supermarket. Each year food manufacturers create more selections and the choices are getting ridiculous. During a quick visit down the aisles, I saw traditional products like pumpkin rolls, bread, pie and soup. New products cover the gamut — Kcups, coffee creamer, beer, vodka, cereal, donuts, cupcakes, biscotti, granola, Pop Tarts®, pudding and pie filling, syrup, Toll House® morsels, Little Debbie® cakes, marshmallows, Oreo® cookies, chicken sausage, tortilla chips, dog treats, etc. There is even a harvest pumpkin spice Hershey® Kiss!

The majority of these products are highly processed, high in sugar, and contain little to no actual pumpkin, so read the list of ingredients. I did find a yummy Chobani® greek yogurt called Pumpkin Spice that was delicious and provided 40 percent daily value for Vitamin A. My advice is to make your own pumpkin treats using the recipes below.

Deborah Rhoades, MA, RD, FAND, is a licensed registered dietitian, fellow of the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics, and extension educator in Family and Consumer Sciences.

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