Sunday, October 13, 2013

Pumpkin Seeds (In the category of Want What You Have.) #52Weeks

Pumpkin everything! You know what I mean—October. If it isn’t pink for breast cancer awareness, it’s pumpkin spice something. The Pumpkin Growers Lobby did a bang up job this year. This season, the list of pumpkin flavored promotional foods dazzles: ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte, pumpkin cream cheese muffins, pumpkin bread, pumpkin scones, "Harvest Pumpkin Soup," pumpkin ice cream, for crying out loud.  Now I like pumpkin well enough – pumpkin pie is not my favorite, but it doesn’t suck.  (I like apple pie the best.) I bake pumpkin whoopee pies with cream cheese filling at Thanksgiving, served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. They are delicious.
This is one of the most creative and appropriate uses of pumpkin I have seen.
For many years, I saw pumpkins more as a toy than as food. I probably missed out on some delicious meals.  Blame the carving of Jack-o-Lanterns. It was, and remains, an annual tradition at my house. But somehow, after plunging my hands into the sticky, slimy muck, scraping the stringy sides clean with dirty fingernails, and heaving the goop into a bowl, I had no interest in eating the firm, sweetish smelling, tangerine colored flesh, and I guess neither did Mom as she never cooked it. Mom would toast the seeds, though. After the Jack-o-Lantern’s face had been penciled on the slick rind and painstakingly carved out with serrated knives, our attention would turn to the bowl of goop.

I actually liked this part best. During the carving phase, my older sister always got to wield the knife, supervised by Mom. I could only watch and suggest spots that needed to be trimmed to clear the eyes or make the mouth more jagged and leering. For the cleaning of the seeds, though, Sis and I were each given our own bowls of goop to work with. I believed I was faster at this, my fingers more nimble than hers, not having used the muscles needed to plunge a steak knife through inch-thick pumpkin rind.

More slippery than the web of tendrils that suspended them in the cavernous interior of the pumpkin, the hard seeds detached with a satisfying plunk into a clean metal bowl. I liked to leave a little dab of pumpkin flesh on the seed hull, knowing it would crisp up and be a lovely salty sweet morsel later. When we had threshed enough seeds, Mom would combine our bowls, season the yield with salt and vegetable oil and spread the mixture on a cookie sheet.

Some minutes later, the warm kitchen filling with the scent of pumpkin, Mom would pull the toasted seeds out of the oven, steaming and golden. She divvied the seeds between four brown paper lunch bags, one for each of us, Sis, me, Mom, and Dad. She sprinkled a touch more salt in each bag, folded the tops, and shook the seeds to coat them evenly.

“They have to cool first,” she admonished as we grabbed for our bags. You’ll burn your mouths.”

After sunset, Mom would place the sculpted pumpkin next to the front door and put flame to the votive candle centered in the belly of the Jack-o-Lantern to check the quality of the carving. We munched toasted pumpkin seeds from our paper bags and admired the effects of flickering light and jagged outlines, confident that “Jack” (as he was always named) would scare away the demons for another year.

These days I light two Jack-o-Lanterns – I’ve taught my husband to carve them. They serve as a beacon to all trick-or-treaters: Free Candy Here. I live in a target-rich neighborhood, and I only give the good stuff: Kit Kats, Hershey’s miniatures, and my favorite, Smarties. I miss trick-or-treating, and not because of the candy. (Let’s face it, not everyone gives the good stuff.) I miss the whole Halloween Costume drama. First you have to decide who or what to be.  Then the process of acquiring the actual costume takes hold, and depending on how much time you gave yourself, this can be wildly frustrating or refreshingly spontaneous. Finally, the execution of the design and its success can make or break the evening.

I’ve won a costume contest or two. The “pair o’ dice” costume I made from two TV boxes (this is pre-flat screens, when TV boxes were still square), white contact paper, and black construction paper netted my new boyfriend and I a bottle of Rumple Minze schnapps. A few years later we won again: I was a bottle of red wine, and he went as a corkscrew. That was probably the height of my Halloween costume creativity. The cork hat I constructed weighed more than my neck could tolerate. (By contrast, the floor length, bottle green net skirt over a matching green sleeveless leotard, red tights, and red stilettos weighed nothing...if the weather had not been unseasonably warm that October, I would have been miserably rather than perfectly chilled.) We won tequila that year.

It’s been years since I entered a Halloween costume contest. I have a festive cardigan vest with satin witches hats, pumpkins, and ghosts that I don before distributing the average 5.9 pounds of candy that I dole out each year. Instead, I enjoy the creativity of the kids today. I count the number of zombies, vampires, Harry Potters, Hokie football players, fairy princesses, pirates, and animals. My husband and I hold a secret costume contest for each ring of the doorbell (they come in packs of three or four). We have a special look he and I exchange – mutual agreement – and the winning little beggar gets a double handful of candy in their sack.

I keep my fingernails much cleaner these days. Better, I have mastered the use of kitchen tools, which means I don’t actually need to involve my fingernails at all – a spoon suffices to scrape the inside of the pumpkin clean. My husband and I have different styles for scary Jack-o-Lantern faces – we place one pumpkin on each side of our front porch steps – a bit more light for the awkward fairy princesses with gowns longer than their stride.  But once gutted, scarred, and exposed to the chilly October night air, a pumpkin becomes inedible.

The seeds, though, slipped from their bonds, oiled, salted, and toasted low and slow…they are delicious. One can eat them in-husk, a chewy, fibrous experience that is still very palatable – and colon cleansing. Or, with strong fingernails, one can shell them, revealing delicate green endosperm and embryo, more slender than a sunflower, sweeter, and trickier to extract unbroken. They taste lovely on my Harvest Spinach Salad and in cookies. The time needed to shell even a ½ cup’s worth makes them a true food of love.

We plan to hit the pumpkin patch next weekend. I think I will look for a smallish one to cook with, or, perhaps juice. In addition, my husband and I will each decide on our own perfect size and shape to sculpt this year’s Jack-o-Lanterns. We get fewer trick-or-treaters these days…the neighbor children are growing up, but we still need to scare away the demons for another year. And I need toasted pumpkin seeds.

Last year's Jack-o-Lanterns


Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
For each cup of fresh raw unrinsed pumpkin seeds add:
1 tablespoon canola, vegetable or corn oil.
1 teaspoon butter, melted
2 teaspoons kosher salt

Heat an oven to 250ยบ F. Toss the seeds, oil, butter, and salt in a bowl until the seeds are coated. Spread the mixture evenly on a baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes, stirring every 5-7 minutes to brown evenly.  Seeds should be golden brown and crispy when done. Toss with additional salt to taste. Cool and serve in shell or hulled. Brown paper lunch bags make an excellent serving vessel, but a paper towel lined bowl works well also. 

Harvest Spinach Salad
For each serving (amount to preference), put in a salad bowl the following:
1/3 to ½ C. Fresh baby spinach leaves, washed and patted dry
2-3 Tablespoons cubed roasted butternut squash (warm or chilled)
1-2 Tablespoons dried cranberries
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh apple that has been lightly coated in lemon juice to prevent oxidation
2 Tablespoons crumbled bleu cheese
2 Teaspoons shelled toasted pumpkin seeds
Toss with 1/8-1/4 C. Raspberry Balsamic vinaigrette*.

*I cheat here and combine 1 C. of Newman’s Own Light Raspberry Vinaigrette with a tablespoon or two (to taste) of balsamic vinegar…it’s really good.

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