Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

A seedy proposition from the pumpkin patch

One would think that sales of pumpkin seeds would soar at Halloween, the height of the pumpkin-picking season. But one would be wrong. The favorite holiday of witches and goblins doesn’t really scare up sales all that much.

“People eat them all year ’round,” said Sandy Braverman, president of Newark Nut Co./NutsOnline.com, who sells raw and roasted pumpkin seeds, in and out of the shell.

Still, some chefs are finding pumpkin seeds to be a handy way to lend fall flavor and crunch to their autumn menus. At Due Mari in New Brunswick, for example, toasted pumpkin seeds top butternut squash custard served with vanilla gelato. “Seasonality is what it’s really all about,” said Bill Dorrler, executive chef-partner at the restaurant.
About a year ago, Michael Haimowitz, executive chef at Arthur’s Landing in Weehawken, substituted dry-roasted pumpkin seeds for croutons in his updated Caesar salad, composed of whole leaves of romaine lettuce, white anchovies and ricotta salata. “Being a north Jersey restaurant, it seems that I had to have some version of a Caesar salad on the menu. I was tired of doing the same old, same old,” he said. He was so pleased with the result that he kept the dish on his menu. “Pumpkin seeds are small, so you can tuck a few into every bite. It helps with the texture and gives some nuttiness to the dish,” he said. He also likes to pair pumpkin seeds with freshly made mozzarella and baby arugula drizzled with pumpkin seed oil.

Growing up in Middletown, Haimowitz used to watch his parents painstakingly scrape out the seeds from their home-grown pumpkins for roasting. Their philosophy was “Why would we not use them?” he recalled. “If you can use a walnut or an almond, you can certainly use a pumpkin seed.”

Restaurateurs with pumpkin on their menus often do likewise. “You hate to throw things out,” said Dorrler. At this time of year he recommends pairing the earthiness of pumpkin seeds with assertive greens, such as frisee or arugula, and cheddar or pecorino cheese. Crushed, the seeds also make a flavorful coating for fish, he added.

An essential ingredient in the green mole sauce of Mexico, pumpkin seeds, as well as those from other winter squashes, were popular among the native tribes of the Americas as both a food and medicine. They were even served at the table of the Aztec leader Montezuma. High in unsaturated fat, pumpkin seeds are a good source of protein, iron, zinc, sitosterol, and amino acids.

Most of the pumpkin seeds sold in the United States are from Ukraine and China. “They’re harvesting and shipping now,” said Braverman. Some also come from Mexico, but they tend to cost more. The term “pepita,” often applied to Mexican pumpkin seeds, can be used to describe any shelled pumpkin seed, he added. Lady Nails, a type of thin, soft-shelled pumpkin seed that resembles a pinky nail, is eaten whole.

Last month, Brooklyn-based Fine Land Corp. recalled the Ying Feng Foodstuffs brand of pumpkin seeds because they contained undeclared sulfites, which could cause a serious reaction in those with sulfite allergies. (Distributed nationwide, they were sold in 10-ounce clear plastic packages with the code EXP 03 25 2010.)

Braverman imports raw seeds and has them dry-roasted or oil-roasted in the United States. “Nothing else is added to them,” he said. “Cooking makes them rounded; it puffs them up a bit.” He also sells organic pumpkin seeds, which cost a dollar a pound more than nonorganic ones.

Different types of pumpkins yield different types of seeds. Pumpkin seed connoisseurs seek out Lady Godiva, Trick-or-Treat and Triple Treat pumpkins, whose seeds have no hull and, therefore, can be eaten whole. Pumpkins that make easy-to-eat seeds aren’t always the best-looking pumpkins for decorating purposes, however.

The pumpkin growing season this year has been good in the central and northern part of the state, reported Jim Giamarese of Giamarese Farm in East Brunswick. “Generally, the bigger the pumpkin, the bigger the seeds,” he said. Although he grows 25 acres of pumpkins, he’s never tried to dry his own snacking seeds.

On occasion, customers have asked Braverman how to prepare their own. “I tell them you can dry them out if you want to and roast them, but I don’t know how it’s going to come out. You can try it and experiment, but it’s not going to be the same.”

As for Halloween, wouldn’t bags of pumpkin seeds — home-roasted or store-bought –make for a healthful alternative to candy handouts? “Sure,” said Braverman. “But tell that to kids.”