Pepitas: What They Are And How To Use Them

In this June 2011 image taken in Concord, N.H., a chimichurri-like sauce with pepitas tops grilled flank steaks on toasted sourdough bread. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

Plenty of people will have a tough time taking pumpkin seeds seriously.

Fair enough. Americans unfamiliar with Hispanic foods generally only encounter them in the glop you scrape out of jack-o-lanterns.

But roasted, hulled pumpkin seeds (properly known as pepitas) are a delicious, nutty backbone of many Mexican dishes and are well worth getting to know.

And thanks to the popularity of Hispanic foods, they are easy to find. Trader Joe’s alone sells several varieties — raw, roasted, salted and not, among others.

Pepitas resemble, long, narrow teardrops and are greenish in color (because their hard, white hulls have been removed). Don’t buy regular “snacking” pumpkin seeds still in their hulls.

Like many nuts and seeds, pepitas taste best when toasted and salted. The flavor is nutty, pleasantly oily and crunchy, but not hard.

If you can only find raw pepitas, they are easy to toast at home. Simply add a handful or so to a dry skillet over medium heat. Stir constantly until the seeds puff and begin to brown. If you like, stir in a few drops of vegetable oil, then salt.

Traditionally, pepitas are used both ground and whole. They often are included in mole, a rich and thick sauce-like dish that usually includes chicken. They also can be mixed into roasted vegetables (especially butternut and other squash varieties) for a pleasantly nutty crunch.

Pepitas really shine when added to salads. Think of them as this decade’s update of the rather tasteless sunflower seeds that have long populated salad bars.

For more ideas for using pepitas, check out the Off the Beaten Aisle column over on Food Network:http://bit.ly/wYEx3M


Grilled Flank Steak with Pepita-Cilantro Sauce

This bold sauce is inspired by chimichurri. The steak can be served alone with the sauce, or thinly sliced over toasted bread.

Start to finish: 20 minutes, plus marinating

Servings: 4

For the steaks:

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 pounds flank steaks

For the sauce:

1 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup packed fresh cilantro

1/2 cup toasted pepitas

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

In a large bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and pepper. Add the steaks, turn to coat, then refrigerate for 30 minutes (or up to several hours).

To make the sauce, in a food processor combine the parsley, cilantro, pepitas, olive oil, vinegar, oregano, cumin, salt, garlic and red pepper flakes. Process for 2 to 3 minutes, or until very smooth. Set aside.

When ready to cook, heat a grill to high.

Remove the steaks from the marinade, then grill for 7 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer the steaks to a cutting board and let rest for 5 minutes.

Slice the steaks across the grain into thin slices. Serve topped with the sauce.

Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 750 calories; 500 calories from fat (67 percent of total calories); 55 g fat (11 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 75 mg cholesterol; 6 g carbohydrate; 55 g protein; 2 g fiber; 740 mg sodium.


J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is author of the recent cookbook, “High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking.” His Off the Beaten Aisle column also appears at FoodNetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch.