While the days grow shorter in autumn, they glow with a distinct brilliance, as a crisp coolness permeates the air.  Bright sunlight dances off the kaleidoscope of autumn leaves, turning rich shades of golden yellow, magenta, russet and burnt umber.

Drive down the country lanes of New England in autumn and you will see orchards laden with bright red apples and plump pears, as well as enormous fields dotted with perhaps the most iconic of fall crops,  vibrant orange pumpkins.

Few crops are more deeply rooted in American tradition than the pumpkin. Today more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are cultivated annually in the United States, destined for both cooking and decorative use. Connecticut has more than 1,400 acres devoted to pumpkin farming. Many of these fields are  pick-your-own  patches, where families flock each year to carefully select the perfect size and shape for carving menacing or merry Jack O’Lanterns!

Pumpkins today are grown in many shades besides the typical neon orange, including ghostly white, pale putty, dark green and deep orange-red. A range of sizes and textures is available, from perfectly petite specimens such as the smooth skinned, creamy white Snowball, the glowing orange Jack Be Little and the gnarly, knobby Knucklehead varieties to gargantuan Mammoth Golds or Big Moons.

Pumpkin is a versatile, easy-to-use ingredient that can be baked, boiled, steamed or roasted. Enormously nutritious, both the flesh and the seeds found in pumpkins offer powerful health benefits. A good source of beta carotene (an important antioxidant), pumpkin is also a significant source of omega 3 fatty acids, protein, manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper and Vitamin K. High in fiber content, pumpkin may enhance digestion. It’s a rich resource of Vitamin C and potassium, so eating plenty of pumpkin may help lower the risk of heart disease, as well as normalize blood pressure.

While all pumpkins are edible, the varieties known as “cooking pumpkins” have thicker, sweeter flesh better utilized for culinary use. Sugar pumpkins are readily available, as is “Cinderella,” a lovely, flat variety with rich, red flesh and a strong, sweet flavor.

A 3 ½-pound pumpkin should yield approximately one to one and half cups of puree. That cup of puree can be the base for delectable pumpkin pancakes. Serve with chopped, toasted pecans or walnuts and plenty of warm maple syrup for a fabulous fall breakfast. Indulge in seasonal delights such as pumpkin panna cotta, pumpkin flan, pumpkin French toast, caramel pumpkin pudding, or pumpkin chocolate brownies.

There are so many terrifically toothsome renditions of pumpkin, but just as appealing is the savory side. Chipotle pumpkin hummus, pumpkin and Swiss chard lasagna, pumpkin risotto, pumpkin-chestnut soup, pumpkin-beef chili, pumpkin and kale flatbread, and farro with roasted pumpkin are just a few of the limitless ideas for preparing a delicious life with fall’s favorite crop – the pumpkin!

Fresh Pumpkin Puree

Makes approximately one and a half cups of puree.

One  3 ½-to-4-pound sugar pumpkin

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut pumpkin half from stem to base. Remove seeds and stringy pulp. Line a baking sheet with foil and place cut sides of pumpkin down on sheet. Bake for one hour or until quite tender. Remove from oven. Let cool, then scrape pumpkin flesh from the shell halves. Puree in a blender and strain out any remaining stringy pieces before using. Can be frozen.

Robin Glowa, HHC, AADP, The Conscious Cook, is a passionate food and wellness professional who earned her certification in holistic health counseling from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and Columbia University Teacher’s College. She earned her cooking experience in the kitchen! Robin specializes in teaching healthy cooking classes to children and adults utilizing, fresh, natural ingredients and simple, delicious recipes. She conducts cooking demonstrations for many local organizations and is available for cooking parties and private instruction as well. For more information go to www.theconsciouscook.net. Robin’s blog is confessionsofaconsciouscook.blogspot.com.