This is the season for most of us to be up to our orange-stained elbows in pumpkins, scooping out large stringy masses of pulp-covered seeds. Before starting to carve the jack-o’-lantern, it’s wise to get your seeds cleaned and roasted, so you can have something to snack on after the work is done.
Pumpkin seeds are valuable additions to diets, especially children’s, which will soon be bombarded by an onslaught of empty calories. Often discarded, the seeds can contribute protein, iron, magnesium and potassium to systems ravaged by candy bars and too many sweets.
I admit to some personal perplexity about pumpkin seeds. I remember them as a child, in a red box with the picture on the front of a Native American chief in a full headdress. They were salty. In fact, a thick white crust of salt on each concealed a barely perceptible seed. They seemed the exact opposite of candy. Indian brand pumpkin seeds are still available online today, a full 50 years after they were introduced. At natural food stores I’ve purchased what is labeled “pepitas” and used them to make tasty Mexican sauces. They were green, had no shell and were not salty at all. And I’ve peered into and scraped clean many a pumpkin and found that the seeds within are white and somewhat woody.
Will the real pumpkin seed please stand up?
Cucurbita (kew-CUR-bit-a), the genus including pumpkin, squash and gourds, is native to the Americas where it has been cultivated for 9,000 years. A tropical annual vine, it is related to the cucumber known to the Romans and the Greeks, who called them “pepon,” which means melon in Greek. The word became “pompon” in French and later “pumpion” to the British. American colonists gave the current usage of the word.
There are 650 varieties of Cucurbita, with about 25 species in cultivation today. The largest fruits in the entire plant kingdom, C.maxima can reach contest-winning weights of more than 800 pounds; C. moschata is the sweetest-flavored species; but C. pepo, with its hard, ridged peduncle, or stem, is the orange field pumpkin that most of us will be carving this week.
The tradition of the jack-o’-lantern is rooted in a Celtic past 2,500 years old. Oct. 31 was feted as the last day of summer before the feast of Samain on Nov. 1. All fires were extinguished across the land to represent the end of sun-filled days. In the darkness, Druids performed a ceremony to reignite the sacred fire and gave some coals to the head of each household, who carried them away in a carved-out turnip or potato, dispelling evil spirits. These vegetable lanterns spawned the legend of Stingy Jack, who made a deal with the devil that backfired to keep him wandering the earth with his burning coal in a carved-out turnip. Irish immigrants to America in the mid-1800s found the hollow pumpkins much easier to carve and decorate than turnips and rutabagas, and our current American tradition evolved.
Pumpkin seeds can be cleaned and roasted in a moderate oven for immediate gratification after the carving task is completed. The white outer shell that covers the pumpkin seed kernel is more digestible if it is cooked in salt water to soften it. If you have the patience, the seeds can be cracked to reveal the kernels, plump and green within.
Certain varieties of pumpkin produce seeds of particular merit. Styrian oil pumpkins are grown in southeastern Austria specifically for their seeds, which have no shell. The shiny, dark green seeds are harvested by hand, dried and then roasted before they are pressed to yield extremely rich, black oil that is good in salad dressings.
There are several ways to prepare the pumpkin seeds for snacking. Scoop out the seeds and rinse in a colander to remove the stringy pulp. Pat the seeds dry with paper towels before roasting. They can be parboiled in salted water or roasted just as they are. They can also be dried in a food dehydrator or left in an oven with the pilot light on for 24 hours until crisp.