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.