For the sixth straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by Concordia University. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2012."
Despite the drought that hurt a variety of other food-based crops in Wisconsin, pumpkin growers are experiencing one of their best seasons yet. That means that pumpkin farms are booming with business, and consumers will have the opportunity to enjoy the bounty of their harvest.
While you can purchase pumpkins at area grocery stores, you can also make a day of it, enjoy the cool autumn weather and pick your own. Here are a few farms in the area that offer good old-fashioned pumpkin picking right in their fields.
Barthel Fruit Farm
12246 N. Farmdale Rd,. Mequon
The Family Farm
328 N. Port Washington Rd., Grafton
9932 W. Pioneer Rd., Cedarburg
Of course, once you've secured your pumpkins, there's always the matter of what to do with them. If you've purchased sugar or cooking pumpkins, you can certainly make pumpkin pie, pumpkin ravioli or pumpkin risotto. And if you've opted for the larger variety, you might choose to simply carve a jack-o'-lantern for Halloween. But, either way, don't neglect the seeds – which are both nutritious and delicious.
Since more pumpkins mean more seeds, I asked around to see how some Milwaukeeans plan to indulge in these delicious seasonal delicacies.
Michelle Hunkins, corporate events director for the American Heart Association, prefers her pumpkin seeds simply roasted and seasoned with garlic salt and cracked black pepper.
And she has the right idea. First, pumpkin seeds are heart healthy. They are high in phytosterols, plant components that aid in stabilizing cholesterol levels and enhancing immune response. Plus, roasting the seeds for snacking is one of the simplest ways to enjoy them. All it takes is a bit of effort and time. Best of all, you can roast the seeds of any kind of pumpkin (or edible squash), even the big fat ones from the wrong side of the patch. And the technique is the same, no matter which variety you choose.
"Take the orange goop off, but don't wash the seeds," recommends Lori Hagopian, PR manager for Hal Leonard Corp. "Then slowly roast them with butter, sea salt and Worcestershire. My family's been making them that way since I was a little kid. I can't wait for October to roll around, just for the pumpkin seeds."
Of course, you can embellish the seeds any way you like. Try cinnamon and sugar for a sweet treat, curry powder for a spicy version or Cajun seasoning if you'd like a bit more of a kick.
Still, simple is sometimes best. Local food blogger Jeff Fortin says he likes to roast his seeds with butter and Lawry's Classic. "It reminds me of the way my mom would make 'em," he says.
It seems that roasting rules, even among the professional set. Chef Aaron Patin of Stone Creek Coffee Company says it's his favorite way to prepare the seeds. But, he relies on egg whites to up the crunch quotient.
"Beat two eggs whites with four tablespoons of sugar until you get medium peaks," he instructs, "then mix in one teaspoon ancho chile powder, fold in two cups of pumpkin seeds and toast. The whites make this nice coated crunch around the seeds and the ancho powder gives a nice spice without the heat. It's one of the peppers that goes really well with sweet."
Chef Brian Frakes, executive chef at The Pfister Hotel, says his wife gets in on the action.
"She has already begun filling our house with the smells of assorted pumpkin seeds – from chili to chipotle to salt-and-pepper-flavored – the kids love them," he reports. "Pumpkin seeds are a fun, versatile ingredient my chefs at the hotel get excited about using this time of year."
That versatility means that uses for pumpkin seeds extend far beyond roasting.
Fortin says that he loves making the seeds into a pesto to pair with cooked shrimp. His favorite recipe uses hulled pumpkin seeds and contains parsley and cilantro, herbs that accentuate the nuttiness of the seeds while giving the pesto a bright green color and fresh flavor.
Of course, hulling pumpkin seeds can be challenge in and of itself. For those willing to take on a bit of effort, Heritage Farms in Ohio offers a relatively simple method.
First, break the roasted seeds up with a rolling pin, hammer or food chopper. Then drop the shattered seeds into a large container filled with water. Stir vigorously to bring all the kernels in contact with the water and to break the surface tension. According to their instructions, the kernels will sink to the bottom and the shells will remain floating.
Hulled seeds can be used for a variety of recipes, including pumpkin seed mole. Maria Elba Miller of Ball'n Biscuit Catering recommends it as one of her favorite dishes. Her recipe, which includes peppers, tomatoes and chiles, is excellent served atop chicken or even on waffles with black beans and peppers.
Frakes also loves to use the seeds as a crunchy coating for fish, especially salmon.
"For my pumpkin seed-crusted fish, I suggest using wild king salmon. The unique nuttiness of the pumpkin seeds pairs well with fresh fish while bringing in that seducing, happy flavor of autumn," he explains. "For the pumpkin seed crust, the big trick is to pulverize the toasted seeds in a coffee grinder so the texture has a pleasant mouth feel. I then combine it with fresh herbs and bread crumbs, and maybe even some other nuts. The sauce should be complementary: buttery – possibly with maple, rum or even more pumpkin!"
Not surprisingly, Kurt Fogle, pastry chef for the SURG Restaurant Group, prefers his pumpkin seeds on the sweeter side. He recommends pumpkin seed brittle (recipe below), a sweet crunchy treat that's perfect on its own, but that also makes a delicious ice cream topping, a delightful mix-in for savory salads or a surprising topping for seasonal pumpkin pie.
Turns out that, in addition to being tasty, pumpkin seeds are also rich in tryptophan. According to WebMD, this particular amino acid is important in production of serotonin, a compound naturally effective against depression.
So, eat your pumpkin seeds. They taste good, and their delightful crunch may just make you happier.
Pumpkin Seed Brittle
1 cup water
1 ½ cups sugar
2 ½ cups corn syrup
3 cups toasted pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
2/3 teaspoon salt
1 1/3 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil
Place water, sugar and corn syrup into a heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Cook over moderate heat until it reaches hard crack stage and is a light amber in color, about 300 degrees F. Add the pumpkin seeds, butter, baking soda, salt and pumpkin seed oil to the caramel, fully incorporate and pour onto a silpat (or onto a greased jellyroll pan). Allow to cool, then break up into pieces.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.