Dallas still hasn’t seen any snow, but it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Well, Christmas for Dallas, which us also known as “July in Calgary”. The nights are frosty, the mornings chilly, and the evenings ridiculously clear and bright. And we know what this means, right? It means we have only 327 more days until Halloween. More importantly, we have 328 days until everyone’s literally giving away pumpkins.
Go ahead and laugh, but those of us who can’t drink and can’t smoke need new methods to survive the holiday season and the dark days of January and February. Sure, I could go for established techniques learned in my childhood, such as indoor gardening, fishkeeping, or impromptu games of Russian roulette with friends. Instead, I wait until the local charity pumpkin patches need to get rid of their excess pumpkins on All Saint’s Day, and I then spend the next week preparing pumpkin seeds. Yes, it’s boring and sedate, but it also means that I’m up to my armpits in roasted pumpkin seeds, and THAT’s what gets me through Christmas.
The basic idea of pumpkin seed roasting is pulling the seeds out of a freshly opened jack-o-lantern, washing them, and roasting them in an oven or grille until they’re slightly crunchy. No big deal, and any number of people do it every Halloween. Unfortunately, the relatively small number of seeds per pumpkin means that it’s not really practical to experiment with roasting or with flavorings. For that, you’ll need a lot of pumpkin seeds. Since you need approximately five pumpkins for a liter of seeds, you’ll need a lot of pumpkins.
This is also problematic in North Texas, just because of our heat and dryness. All plants have pores, or stomata, on the tops of their leaves to allow transpiration of water. Some of this water is excess produced during photosynthesis, but most is drawn up through the plant’s roots to allow movement of water and nutrients to the leaves. Pumpkins are particularly interesting in that they have stomata on both sides of their leaves, thus doubling their transpiration output. This is great in areas with high humidity and slightly cooler temperatures, but most attempts in Dallas to grow pumpkins fail for one good reason: the plant ends up losing more water from transpiration than it can draw through its roots, and it ultimately wilts and dies. The only year I’ve had a traditional jack-o-lantern survive the summer was during the unnaturally wet 2007 summer, and I even lost that one to termites. (Yes, termites. Very long story.)
Since trying to grow them outdoors is impossible, starting the process requires getting a good collection of pumpkins from other sources. Many fundraiser “pumpkin patch” stands pop up around the beginning of October, so make friends with a few and see what they’re going to do with their pumpkins. If the fundraiser is for a charity you appreciate or support, offer a donation in exchange for going through their excess. If they say “Oh, go ahead and help yourself,” offer a donation anyway, and they’ll remember you as the person who helped clear out their unwanted pumpkins. Sometimes this pays off.
In my case, this wasn’t going to happen, particularly because of the collapse of the jack-o-lantern crop in the Northeast US due to Hurricane Irene’s flooding. However, my local Kroger store had a surplus from the Rio Grande Valley, and a week after Halloween, the manager had marked them down to “10 for $10″. $40 and some very strange looks from the Kroger checkers later, I had a car full of pumpkins. Ten minutes after that, I had a back yard full of pumpkins.
Handy tip #1: make sure that you have a vehicle capable of hauling your bounty, and without the bounty pile shifting and pummelling your head while attempting to drive back home. I stopped at 40 pumpkins this time, mostly so the coroner’s report didn’t read “assaulted by squash after a sudden stop,” but were I to have a big enough collection, renting a truck is an option.
Now, once you have your pumpkins out of their transport and in a good massacree area, you’ll need proper tools for suitable processing. These should include:
- A tub or bucket suitably large for holding seeds and water (you’ll see why later)
- A sharpened machete or other long blade
- Salt in standard packages: one kilo for every 30 pumpkins
- A pair of cotton or gardener’s gloves
- A pair of atex, nitrile, or vinyl gloves
- 2 Baking sheets (preferably ones that won’t be missed if stained or damaged)
- Your choice of spices
If you’re working on a porch or other blacktop or concrete area, get a stump or log section to use for chopping pumpkins. Since you’re going to be working for a while, I also recommend having some sort of music player with something a bit violent to keep up your spirits. In my case, considering my skin and hair coloration, my choice for pumpkin massacre was Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword.
To start out, take into consideration that pumpkin juice is extremely acidic. It’s not actually caustic, but it’s sufficiently acidic that it will burn the skin along your fingernails, and you absolutely do not want this in any open cuts or scabs. Should this be of concern, put on the gardener’s gloves, pull out the machete, put a pumpkin on a good cutting area, and give it one good thwack. If your neighbors are already used to your shenanigans, feel free to let loose with a good battle yell, such as the one used by my doctor during my vasectomy: “Hasan…CHOP!” (My neighbors are plenty interesting, but even they weren’t going to handle my screaming “Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!” while dispatching squash on a Saturday afternoon. They were freaked out enough by pumpkin chips and pulp flying over the fence like a failed special effect in a GWAR concert.)
As tempting as it may be to try exotic swordsmanship, just go for a straight slice across the widest part of the pumpkin. If you slice through all the way, great. If it only goes most of the way, apply some pressure to finish the job, and split it in half. Set aside the halves and get to work on the next one: it’s actually easier to get them all prepped before starting on the next step than to clean them one at a time.
Once the chopping is done, and the back yard looks as if the soldiers of Kelmain will fight no more, wash the machete and dry the blade (especially if the blade is carbon steel, as the pumpkin juice will stain and pit the blade) and put on your rubber gloves. With a raking motion, scrape the seeds from the stringy pulp on the inside of each pumpkin half, and dump the seeds into your tub or bucket. Don’t worry about getting every last seed, mostly because you’ll expend ridiculous amounts of energy to get that one last straggler, but make some effort to get the vast majority. When you’re done, feel free to cook up the pumpkin halves, as apparently they make quite a good soup when roasted, skinned, and mashed before dumped into a crockpot. That’s the Czarina’s territory, as I honestly can’t stand squash of any sort. If your tastes run toward mine, then feel free to use them as mulch in your garden, laying them down and then putting a good thick layer of compost or leaves atop them so they’ll decompose quickly.
Handy tip #2: If you’re inclined to getting boisterous with your pumpkins, consider some sort of eye protection to go with the gloves. If you don’t want to get the juice on your cuticles, you definitely don’t want to get it in your eyes.
Once the pumpkin halves are cleaned up and the machete is put up for the season, you should have a fairly large collection of seeds in your tub. As a general rule, you should have a liter of seeds for every five to ten pumpkins, so carefully move the tub to a new and more permanent location. It doesn’t necessarily have to be inside, but it should have some protection from the weather. Whatever you do, lift with your knees and not your back, because you don’t want the indignity of blowing out a vertebral disc and landing facefirst into a pile of spilled pumpkin seeds. You don’t want your final moments to be recreated by my little brother on 1000 Ways To Die, do you?
Next, get the salt, and generously dump it into the tub with the seeds. Go nuts. Go mad. Make it strong enough that rampaging porcupines will come to your house and gnaw down the fence to get at the salt. (We don’t have that problem out here, but the armadillos are almost that obnoxious over spilled beer.) Dump in at least a kilo, and then cover the seeds with water and stir up well.
At this point, as tempting as it would be to go to work on roasting, don’t. Let the seeds sit in your newly made brine for at least 24 hours. This will remove any remaining pumpkin slime and juice, as well as facilitate the removal of any extra pulp. Think you got out all of the pulp when you were scraping out seeds in the yard? Oh, you’ll discover that pumpkin pulp can teleport, and in disturbing quantities.
Handy tip #3: Use a slotted spoon to stir your brined seeds, and stir early and often. You’ll be amazed and horrified at how much pulp builds up after a casual stirring, and every gram you get now is one less gram you’ll have to pull out of your roasting sheets.
After the seeds finish their brine soak, scoop out a few liters, dump the mass into a colander, and rinse well. I mean it: rinse well. Let them drain for a while: while doing so, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F and get out the baking sheets.
Handy tip #4: Unless you thrive on domestic discord, and your Significant Other or roommate really doesn’t care what you do to the cookie sheets, get a pair specifically for pumpkin seed roasting and use the pair ONLY for that purpose. They WILL stain, and the shrieks from cooking enthusiasts as to the piebald condition of their sheets are matched only by their efforts to brain you with the blender. Keep an eye open for sales at grocery stores during baking season, and they’ll thank you for the thought.
Next, dump the seeds from the colander to the cookie sheet. They don’t have to be exactly one layer thick: sometimes a thicker layer roasts better, especially on particularly dry days.
Purists at this point can move directly to putting their seeds in the oven, but a judicious application of spice can make all of the difference. The personal favorites among family and friends are Memphis-style dry rib rub (in this case, generously supplied by Red Hot & Blue, but Defcon Sauces’s Smoky Dust also gives a subtle fire to roasted seeds. Either way, the good thing about having a large quantity of seeds is that this gives room to experiment with spices and roasting time, so try new items one batch at a time.
Once the spices are on, stir up the seeds on the cookie sheet, trying to get the majority of the seed mass covered in spice. (This, by the way, is why you want sheets solely for seed roasting. The seeds won’t stain the sheets, but the spices will.) Once that’s done, put the sheet in the oven and leave at 450 degrees F for 30 minutes. While that’s going, set up another sheet and set it aside.
When that time is up, pull that sheet out of the oven and stir it again. You’ll note that the seeds are still wet toward the bottom of the sheet, and the stirring is to drive off the excess moisture. You’ll probably also note that the oven vents are gouting steam at this point. Don’t sweat it, and use it as an excuse to raise the humidity in the house. If the house is already too soggy, turn on a vent fan and blast it out: it’s your choice.
Now here’s the critical part. Put that sheet back into the oven and set a timer for seven minutes. You’ll actually need ten minutes, but the timer warning is so you watch those seeds. One minute too little, and the seeds will have all of the flavor and digestibility of cattle feed. One minute too long, and every smoke detector in the vicinity will go off, and you don’t want any hot spices to get into the smoke unless you really like burning from the inside. Keep an eye on them, and pull them out at 10 minutes or when the seeds go a nice golden brown but before they start to smoke.
Once they’re ready, pull out the cookie sheet, set the sheet aside to cool, and put in the next batch. Right about the time you’ll need to stir the second sheet, the first sheet should be cool enough to store. The absolute best option is to store the roasted seeds in an airtight container such as a Rubbermaid bowl or a ZipLoc bag, where they’ll keep for up to three months. If you want to keep them longer than that, the containers can be put into the freezer and removed at your discretion.
One warning, a lesson I learned back in 2005 when I cut up about 120 pumpkins and processed about 100 liters of seeds. Do not expect these to last for very long. Between regular snackings to fend off seasonal depression and friends and family snagging bags for their own uses, those 100 liters lasted about three months. Make a point of scoping out more pumpkin sources next year, and they might last longer for you than they do for me. They might.