Autumn leaves and pumpkin seeds

Young Diesel, dressed as Zero from "The NIghtmare Before Christmas," inspired my artful sister's Halloween pumpkin this year. Nadolny family photo

Anyone else enjoying the hell out of a surplus of pumpkin seeds, now that it's high jack-o'-lantern season?

In a fun bit of irony, this pumpkin-hating gal is a big fan of the very reasons for their existence: the seeds.

I've loved pumpkin seeds since my kiddie days of pumpkin-carving with the fam. Their popcorn-like tastiness is addicting, somehow filling, and beautifully complemented by the loads of Good Stuff they offer, including antioxidants; fiber; minerals like manganese and zinc; and phytosterols, plant chemicals that can help lower cholesterol and, dudes, keep the prostate in good working order. Just sayin'.

Husband and I roasted a fine batch of big, plump seeds from my incredibly spaghetti-squashy pumpkin just the other night, and I'm contemplating another carving session to score more seeds. Or maybe I should get in on the action at Foxwoods on Friday, Oct. 28, when Scott Cully, a five-time Guinness World Records holder for carving the world's largest jack-o'-lanterns, will create giant jack-o'-lanterns carved out of 300-pound pumpkins and a "monster 1,568-pound pumpkin," according to a press release. Seeds galore! Details here.

While I thoroughly detest the smell of pumpkin guts, every few years or so I'll go in for the minor surgery it takes to harvest them. And though the visual artist gene skipped me, I do enjoy working with pumpkins as art — despite the fact that I never stray far from the standard triangle eyes/creepy mouth combo.

Sidenote by way of contrast: My sisters, one older, one younger, have a fantastic portfolio of pumpkin-carving feats. Older Sis has crafted tasteful Martha-Stewart-esque designs, perfectly rendered to capture candlelight just so; one year she did a lovely carving of autumn leaves. Younger Sis this year carved images of her cat, Dinah, and dog, Diesel, in pumpkin-y perfection. Free-hand.

So, as a standard pumpkin-carving artist, I don't do much to my seeds beyond a good salting. This year I got crazy and added olive oil to the mix after Younger Sis texted me with a victorious report of her roasted seed medley: basic salt; salt and pepper; and seasoned with Adobo, hot pepper, black pepper, Krazy Salt (a Nadolny household staple), and garlic salt.

And after Googling around for pumpkin-seed-roasting temperatures, I discovered a trove of suggestions for what the heck to do with all these pumpkin seeds, including how to dry, roast and season or sweeten them. (I suspect Little Sis might have some web pages to check out...) In the end, I was overwhelmed by the options (Slow roast? Quick roast? Pat dry? Air dry?), I split the difference and baked them for a total of about 20 minutes at 350 degrees with the oven set to convection, whilst flipping intermittently. In retrospect, they could've used about 5 more minutes on a lower temp, but our resulting stash is suffering from no neglect.

Now, if you really love pumpkin seeds, you probably know that any recipe that incorporates "pepitas" — the Spanish culinary term for pumpkin/squash seeds — capitalizes on the seeds' crunch and/or mild nutty flavor (many recipes call for hulled seeds, which are available pre-packaged). You'll find them in mole dishes, soups, salads, and, surprisingly, dessert dishes, in which they function like the way pinenuts and hazelnuts do in Italian pastries (read: pleasant, starchy texture with mild flavor that doesn't overpower the sweetness).

In short, there's more than one way to enjoy your pumpkin plunder.

To celebrate pumpkin seed season (and because I love Mexican food), here's two recipes that employ pepitas, one sweet, one savory—you decide which one you eat first. I'll say this: the dessert recipe includes dark chocolate, caramel, and what they call "pepita praline."

To read more info than anyone needs on how to prep basic pumpkin seeds and flavor them to your preferences, click here.

Find me on Twitter: @TheMDesk

Pepita Crusted Chicken with Mexican Corn Cakes

Recipe courtesy of Jenny Flake, Gilbert, Ariz. Found on foodnetwork.com.

Ingredients:

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1 cup finely ground pepitas

1/4 cup panko crumbs

For the corn cakes:

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons half-and-half

3 tablespoons butter, melted

1 egg yolk

1/2 cup corn from 1 ear, divided

1/4 cup finely chopped white onion

2 tablespoons freshly chopped cilantro leaves

1 tablespoon minced jalapeno

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cornmeal

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg white

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

For the mango sauce:

1 cup diced mango

1 tablespoon finely diced white onion

1 tablespoon freshly chopped cilantro leaves

1 tablespoon sugar

3/4 tablespoon minced jalapeno

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chicken broth

3 tablespoons half-and-half

Queso fresco, for serving

For chicken: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pound chicken breasts into 1/4-inch thickness. Place the eggs into a dish. The next dish mix flour, salt and pepper. In a third dish place pepitas and panko. Dip chicken into the eggs and then the flour mixture, back to the eggs and then into the pepita/panko mix to coat. Spray baking sheet with cooking spray and place chicken on top. Bake for about 25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

For corn cakes: In food processor mix 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons half-and-half, 3 tablespoons melted butter, egg yolk and half the corn until smooth. Transfer mixture to medium bowl. Add remaining corn, onion, cilantro and jalapeno and set aside. In a separate bowl mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and gently mix. In a small bowl whisk egg white until slightly stiff peaks form. Fold whisked egg into other ingredients. In a large cast iron skillet over medium heat, place 2 tablespoons oil. Drop batter by tablespoons into hot skillet making 8 cakes. Cook approximately 1 minute on each side or until browned.

For mango sauce: In a food processor place the mango, white onion, cilantro, sugar, jalapeno and salt and process until smooth. Add chicken broth and place in small saucepan over medium heat. Cook until bubbles form. Reduce heat to low and stir in half-and-half.

To serve: Place 1 chicken breast and 2 corn cakes on each plate. Drizzle with mango sauce and garnish with crumbled queso fresco.

Dark Chocolate Flan With New Mexican Chili, Cinnamon and Pepita

Found on www.yummly.com.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup hulled toasted, pepitas

1 1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon chile powder (mild)

1 piece cinnamon sticks (inch long)

2 whole black peppercorns

1/2 teaspoon star anise

5 oz. bittersweet chocolate (finely chopped)

4 large eggs

1 pinch salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. On a rimmed baking sheet lined with nonstick liner, buttered parchment or waxed paper, spread pepitas close together in a single layer.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup sugar and 6 tablespoons water. Bring to a simmer, stirring only until sugar is dissolved. Continue to cook, tilting pan occasionally to distribute heat evenly, until a caramel of a deep amber color forms, about 15 minutes.

Working quickly (before caramel cools and hardens), pour half the hot caramel into a 9-inch loaf pan, tilting pan to coat bottom and a bit of the sides. Pour remaining caramel over pepitas, using an offset spatula to help spread caramel if necessary. Let both pans cool completely. When pepita praline is cool, break into 2-inch pieces.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, combine milk, cream, chili powder, cinnamon, peppercorns and star anise. Bring to a simmer over high heat; reduce to medium and simmer 5 minutes. Let stand, off heat, 15 minutes. Return to a simmer, turn off heat and whisk in chocolate until smooth.

In a bowl, whisk eggs, remaining 1/3 cup sugar, and the salt together. Whisking constantly, slowly pour hot chocolate mixture into eggs until fully combined. Pour custard through a fine sieve into caramel-coated loaf pan. Place loaf pan in a deep roasting pan. Add 2 inches hot tap water to roasting pan. Cover roasting pan tightly with foil; prick foil all over with a fork.

Carefully transfer pan to oven. Bake until flan is lightly set but still jiggles when shaken (lifting foil to check), about 1 1/2 hours. Transfer loaf pan to a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Refrigerate flan at least 4 hours or overnight.

To serve, run an offset spatula along sides of pan to gently release it. Turn onto a serving platter and top with pepita praline; serve in slices.

Pumpkin smell is in full effect as I mine for pumpkin seeds.
Pumpkin smell is in full effect as I mine for pumpkin seeds. Brian P. Boyd
Even the Occupy Wall Streeters are getting into the pumpkin-y spirit. Here's hoping they saved their pumpkin seeds. The nutrients therein could fuel a whole day's protest.
Even the Occupy Wall Streeters are getting into the pumpkin-y spirit. Here's hoping they saved their pumpkin seeds. The nutrients therein could fuel a whole day's protest. AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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