I first encountered pumpkin seeds the same way a lot of American children do — in slimy fistfuls pulled from Halloween pumpkins. Of course, I immediately discarded the seeds, along with the stringy pulp, as I moved on to the more important, and more fun, knife-wielding part of the job.
Which is a shame, because pumpkin seeds are nutritionally dense and extremely versatile in the kitchen. So in this pumpkin-crazed point of the year, when pumpkin-spiced this and pumpkin-flavored that take over our grocery aisles and public consciousness, why not give a little love to the humble pumpkin seed?
Coaxing flavor out of them is simple. Most supermarkets sell hulled pumpkin seeds, but if yours doesn’t, you’ll have to exhume the seeds from a pumpkin and then remove the fibrous white hull encasing the dark green seed. Though some very traditional recipes leave them on, the hull doesn’t add any real flavor and results in a gritty texture.
Next, give the seeds a toast. Raw pumpkin seeds have a subtle, grassy flavor, but toast them and captivating nutty aromas emerge. Sprinkle with salt and maybe some chili powder, and you have a satisfying snack that could easily take the place of bar peanuts at your next party.
But that’s really just the beginning.
Pumpkin seeds make excellent garnishes. Hardly a salad gets tossed in my house that doesn’t benefit from a generous sprinkle of toasted pumpkin seeds. Along with a richly nutty taste, they add a distinctive crunch to each bite. For this same reason, they also do extremely well scattered atop soups, especially blended soups like sweet potato or red pepper.
Pumpkin seeds also have a sweet side. Pumpkin seed brittle, easy to make, is great on its own, or as a crunchy addition to soft dessert, like a panna cotta. Pumpkin seeds provide a consistent crunchy texture throughout a brittle, especially compared to those made with softer nuts like cashews.
If you’re looking for the center of pumpkin seed usage, look no farther than the Mexican state of Yucatan. Pumpkin seeds have been an integral part of the cuisine there for hundreds, if not thousands of years — often toasted and ground up to form the base of a dip or sauce. One of the most ubiquitous is sikil p’aak, a mixture of pumpkins seeds, tomatoes and chilies that is commonly served with tortilla chips.
But if you’re looking to create the most pumpkin-heavy dish of the fall season, go all in with pipian rojo. The sauce (it can be defined also as a mole) blends pumpkin seeds, chilies and a complex assortment of spices to create something fragrant, spicy and rich all at once. Usually pipian rojo is served over poultry, but in Lucky Peach’s latest book, “Power Vegetables!” the sauce tops roasted kabocha squash. In spirit of the season, we’ve swapped that squash in favor of pumpkin, though use whatever squash you want. The rustic earthiness of the sauce plays off the tender, sweet flesh of the pumpkin. It also has the benefit of combining the two parts of gourd — the flesh and the seeds — into a harmonious, and extremely delicious, whole.
2 tablespoons neutral oil, like olive oil
3 dried guajillo chilies
2 dried ancho chilies (or two more guajillos)
3 garlic cloves
½ cup chopped onion
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 cups water
½ cup pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pull the stems from the chilies and shake out and discard their seeds. Tear the chilies into pieces the size of a postage stamp.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add the torn chilies, garlic and onion, and toss to coat them in the oil. Sweat the vegetables until the onion and garlic are soft and the oil has turned red from the chilies, about 8 minutes. Stir in the bay leaves, oregano, cumin, paprika and cinnamon. Continue cooking, stirring often, until the spices have melded and give off a heady aroma, about 2 minutes. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer until the sauce base has reduced by half (to about 2 cups), about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the pumpkin seeds in a medium skillet and set over medium-low heat. Warm the seeds, tossing them in the pan so that they toast evenly, until they have darkened a few shades, 3 to 4 minutes. A few will pop and dance in the pan. Slide them onto a plate and add the sesame seeds to the pan. Toast the seeds, shaking the pan, until they are a dirty blond, about 2 minutes. Slide them onto the plate with the pumpkin seeds and let cool.
Carefully puree the hot sauce base and cooled seeds in a blender or with an immersion blender until very smooth. Return the sauce to the pan and bring it to a simmer. Simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 5 minutes, and season with the salt. The pipian can be eaten immediately but will taste best after being cooled and stored in the fridge for a couple of days. Reheat it gently, adding splashes of water to loosen the sauce if needed.
Makes 2 1/2 cups (6 servings)
Per serving: 143 calories, 12 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 5 g protein, 340 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
Pumpkin panna cotta
Makes 12 servings.
Panna cotta looks fancy, but it’s surprisingly easy to whip together. This version, inspired by Splendid Table’s pumpkin pie panna cotta, is a textural foil to the brittle — a bit of velvety smoothness to contrast the brittle’s crunchiness.
3 cups 2-percent milk
2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
1 cup sugar
3 cups heavy cream
½ teaspoon vanilla
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin puree
Put the milk in a saucepan; sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Allow to sit to bloom the gelatin, about 5 minutes. Over low heat, gently heat the mixture until the gelatin is dissolved.
Add sugar to the milk mixture; continue heating over low heat, until the sugar is also dissolved, taking care to avoid boiling the liquid. Remove from heat; whisk in the heavy cream, cinnamon, vanilla and pumpkin puree until evenly combined.
Divide the mixture among 12 ramekins or coffee cups. Cool to room temperature, then cover and chill in the fridge at least 4 hours or overnight.
When ready to serve, dip the bottom of the ramekins into a bowl of hot water to loosen the panna cotta.
Run a knife around the edge and invert onto a plate. (Alternatively, serve directly from the ramekins.) Garnish with pepita brittle.
Per serving: 316 calories, 23 g fat, 15 g saturated fat, 73 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 23 g sugar, 5 g protein, 49 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
Roasted squash with pipian rojo
Adapted from “Lucky Peach presents Power Vegetables! Turbocharged Recipes for Vegetables with Guts” by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach. The authors call for squash, but we used pumpkin for a double pumpkin effect.
2 pie pumpkins (2 pounds each)
Pipian rojo (recipe on this page)
Lime cheeks (thick slices of lime, cut from the side to include the curved part, the cheek, but not going through the middle)
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cut the pumpkins in half vertically through the stem end. Don’t remove the seeds. Lay the halves cut side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Roast until tender enough to be pierced with a knife, 30 to 40 minutes. The skin may be quite firm but the flesh will be soft and caramelized in spots.
When cool enough to handle, flip pumpkin halves over and carefully scoop out their seeds and pulp, taking care not to break the flesh. Slide a large serving spoon between the skin and flesh of the pumpkin, removing the flesh from each half in two or three large wedges.
Place the wedges from each half into a shallow bowl or dinner plate, season with salt, and blanket each with pipian rojo. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve with a lime cheek.
Makes 4 servings.
Per serving: 296 calories, 18 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 31 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 10 g protein, 514 mg sodium, 6 g fiber
Makes 12 servings.
1 ½ cups pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Vegetable oil spray or 1 teaspoon neutral oil
3 cups sugar
1 ¾ cups water
1 stick unsalted butter
½ cup light corn syrup
2 teaspoons flaky salt, like sea salt
In a bowl, combine pepitas, cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg. Set aside.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly coat it with vegetable spray or butter (or skip if using a silicone baking mat).
In a large saucepan, add the sugar, water, butter and corn syrup; cook over high heat until the sugar begins to turn golden, about 3 minutes. With a wooden spoon, stir occasionally until the mixture turns a golden amber color, or a candy thermometer reads 300 degrees, about 10 minutes.
Immediately take the mixture off the heat and fold in the spiced pepitas and salt. Pour the quickly cooling mixture onto your prepared baking sheet; use a spatula to spread brittle before it sets. You can also top with another sheet of parchment paper and roll the whole thing flat, to your desired thickness. Let cool for 20 minutes before breaking into shards. Serve as is, with ice cream or other desserts.
Per serving: 390 calories, 15 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 64 g carbohydrates, 62 g sugar, 4 g protein, 481 mg sodium, 1 g fiber