With Halloween less than a week away,  pumpkins proliferate in most retail establishments, including your local natural and organic food store.

Pumpkins are a member of the gourd family, and you can substitute them in virtually any recipe that calls for winter squash (butternut, acorn, Hubbard, turban, etc.). The large pumpkins used to make jack-o’-lanterns are not the tastiest; instead, choose smaller pumpkins (jack-be-littles, cheese pumpkins or sugar pumpkins) that have more flesh.

Pumpkins pack a powerful nutritional punch, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. They’re low in calories, essentially fat free, and rich in potassium, vitamin A, beta-carotene and fiber. When shopping, select a pumpkin that has a hard, smooth, unblemished rind. A fresh whole pumpkin can be stored at room temperature for up to a month or refrigerated for up to 3 months.

I enjoy cooking with pumpkin any time of year, but I’ll admit to preferring simplicity. I buy canned pumpkin puree when baking or making pumpkin soup. My local Whole Foods Market carries 15-oz. cans of Farmer’s Market Organic Pumpkin, produced by Stahlbush Island Farms. It’s grown and processed in Oregon under Oregon Tilth organic agricultural requirements.

Tune in tomorrow for the first in a series of pumpkin recipes.