Roasted Pepitas for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving dinner is about the turkey of course, and all the vegetable side dishes, and the pies.  But there are also the little condiments, the tasty bites that serve as appetizers or add more flavors to the main meal. From my grandmother’s Thanksgiving table, I remember her homemade watermelon rind pickles, my mother’s bread and butter pickles, store-bought green olives stuffed with pimento, cranberries both jellied in the shape of the can and chunky in sauce, and most of all, I remember the toasted hickory nuts my family would bring.

In the fall we’d gather bags of nuts from the shagbark hickory trees that grew along our road, my father would crack their hard shells in a vice, managing to pull out perfect nut halves, and my mother would toast them in butter, sprinkle them with salt and serve them in bowls.  Even at the kids’ table there’d be a bowl of these special nuts.

Some years, my sister Sarah who still lives near those shagbark hickory trees will send us a jar of hickory nuts in the fall, a very special treat.  In years with no hickory nut gifts, Scott will blanch and toast almonds for an appetizer.  But this year, I have a new entry for the nut bowls: roasted pepitas.

I’ve just spent an afternoon carving open a half dozen Kakai pumpkins, pulling out their large, hull-less, dull green seeds and roasting them.  They are delicious, not quite the flavor of hickory nuts but still very rich and nutty.  They’ll be perfect as an appetizer and later on the table, if there are any left.

I learned about this variety of “naked seed pumpkins” last spring in a Barbara Damrosch column,, and ordered seeds from Johnny’s: where the description calls them “pumpkin nuts.”  I’d never grown pumpkins for nuts so it was new territory.

The three plants I started inside and then set out in the garden grew well and by late September the beautiful green-striped orange pumpkins were ready to harvest.

It was tempting to keep them as decoration, but I’d come too far in the pepita adventure to stop so I cut them open.  The surprisingly large, plump seeds were easy to slip from the stringy pumpkin flesh and arrange on a parchment-paper-covered sheet pan to dry for an hour or so before roasting in a 225-degree oven.  I lightly coated one batch in olive oil and sprinkled them with a little salt.  After half-an-hour in the oven, they felt crisp and tasted great.  Once they’d cooled, they were even tastier.  I also roasted a plain batch, no olive oil or salt.  These were great too.  I’m tempted to try roasting another batch in butter and sugar or a little maple syrup for a sweet treat to complement the savory.

Scott will make some roasted almonds to accompany the roasted pepitas.  Our friend Nancy is pickling carrots and beets for a sweet and sour appetizer and I may try a pickled winter squash recipe I just saw.  On the table, there will be our neighbor Laura’s cranberry sauce and my pear chutney.  All these little tastes will play supporting roles to the big main flavors, but they’ll be most welcome.  It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving dinner without them.