Whether meandering through a far-off field or shopping at your local market, this fall you’ll likely come across an army of pumpkins – a sea of quirky shapes, sizes and colors that beg to be stacked in jaunty piles on your porch. You, dear reader, can do better than that, though. Once you know which varieties to buy, how to safely cut them and all the delightful things you can do with their innards, pumpkins will forever do double duty as a delicious ingredient in your kitchen.
1. Pick of the Patch
Next time you’re picking pumpkins, keep a lookout for these fantastic cooking pumpkins, whose beauty runs far deeper than the surface.
2. Scrumptious Seeds
Not all pumpkin seeds are created equal. In fact, most pumpkins are bred for a specific purpose: tasty flesh for baking, beautiful exterior for decorating or fuss-free seeds for roasting.
To try your hand at roasting pumpkin seeds, start by choosing the right pumpkin. Styrian pumpkins produce those gorgeous, dark-green seeds that you find in stores; they’re large and have no hull, which means they don’t have that white, chewy exterior like other pumpkin seeds that you’ve tried – and failed – to roast in the past. Ignore the online recipes for roasting those white, flaky shams that fall out of your jack-o’-lantern and call your local pumpkin patch to inquire about “seed pumpkins” – Kakai is another great option.
Once you’ve located the right variety, choose a few big ones, as they have more seeds. Also, go for hollow, not heavy, pumpkins: The heavier the pumpkin, the more flesh, whereas a hollow sound indicates space in the center that should be flush with seeds. At home, crack the pumpkins open and scoop out the goods. Pick the seeds out with your fingers and then rinse them in a colander, shaking and stirring them with your hand to loosen any clinging pulp, until they’re completely clean. Spread them out on towels and let them sit until they feel completely dry.
If you choose to just buy raw pumpkin seeds at the store, this is where you come in. You might have heard that soaking raw almonds in water helps boost their nutritional value and increase their digestibility; the same holds true for pumpkin seeds. Additionally, soaking the seeds in saline water overnight will help them get extra crispy in the oven, thus creating the perfect fall snack.
For every 2 to 3 cups of seeds, use 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and enough water to entirely cover the seeds. Stir water and salt until salt has dissolved; add raw pumpkin seeds and let soak, at least 8 hours or overnight. Remove seeds from water and dry thoroughly.
Roasting seeds isn’t about blasting them with intense heat; rather, it’s a lower, slower roast that adheres flavor to the seeds and crisps them up nicely. For the seasoning, you can go in myriad directions: Keep it simple with salt and pepper, mix it up with curry powder or garam masala or embrace the PSL (pumpkin spice latte) with a combination of cinnamon, sugar, clove and ginger. Cumin, coriander and chili powder are universally loved as well, as is a “classic ranch” mix of dried herbs.
Preheat oven to 325ºF. Use 1 teaspoon of cooking oil for every 1 cup of pumpkin seeds; toss until coated. Sprinkle with desired herbs and spices; toss to incorporate. Generously season with more kosher salt. On a lipped baking sheet, spread out seeds in a single layer; bake until seeds are toasted and crispy, 20 to 25 minutes, stirring halfway through. Remove from oven and let cool completely on baking sheet. Once cooled, store roasted pumpkin seeds in canning jars.
3. Slice and Dice
Pumpkins are hard winter squashes, with an emphasis on “hard.” Their tough exterior helps keep the flesh fresh all season long, but it’s no picnic to cut. Strategy matters here – your fingers are at stake – so I suggest following these steps to get through the process unscathed.
4. And Then There’s Pie
Phew, you’ve finished the hard part. Now, what’s the best way to enjoy your prepared pumpkin pieces?
For an easier cold-weather side, simply toss 1-inch-thick slices with olive oil and roast on a baking sheet. For flavor, snuggle some fresh herbs such as sage, thyme and rosemary next to the pumpkin, or throw ground spices such as cumin, chili powder, coriander, Aleppo pepper and turmeric in with the oil as you toss.
You can also make your own pumpkin purée for pies, quick breads and muffins – it’s a cinch, trust me. Once you’ve halved your pie pumpkin and removed the seeds and pulp, set each half cut-side down on a baking sheet. Preheat oven to 400ºF and then roast until tender, 35 to 45 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool enough to handle. Scrape flesh from skin; transfer to a food processor and process until butter-smooth, 4 to 5 minutes. Allow purée to cool completely before transferring it to freezer-safe containers; store in freezer for up to 3 months.
Note: Homemade pumpkin purée is runnier (by degrees) than the canned variety, so factor that in when using it in recipes.