Thursday, July 12, 2012

Oil From Pumpkins

The idyllic western Wisconsin countryside we now call home is a magical place, so perhaps it’s no surprise that amazing things happen here.  There are world-class cheeses produced on modest farms, the hills become flush with morels, then chanterelles in their season, and crystalline spring creeks vivid with trout thread through the lush valleys.  In one such valley two inspired men (with a little help from their friends) are squeezing oil from pumpkins, creating a product not merely distinctive for this region, but rare in the whole U.S.A.  Ken Seguine and Jay Gilbertson are the visionaries behind  Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil, which has been on the market since December 2006.

Pumpkin seed oil is a product well-known in Europe, particularly Austria, but when the first bottle of Hay River oil hit the shelves in 2006, it was the first
bottle of American pumpkin seed oil to hit the shelves, period.  I’m aware of at least one other company now producing pumpkin and squash seed oils, but it is still a fairly exotic ingredient in the American pantry.  Once more people learn about it, they’re going to like it.  It takes a little getting used to, since it is unlike any other oil we commonly use, but it is both approachable and versatile.  Think of it in the same vein as a high quality extra virgin olive oil in terms of how you might use it; now forget all about olive oil.  This uniquely fragrant oil is nothing like that.

The story behind the oil is as remarkable as the product.  Ken’s from suburban L.A., Jay’s from Eau Claire, and they were living in the Twin Cities when they started looking for a home in western Wisconsin to be near Jay’s parents in 2001.  It took nine months of looking until they found “our picture of heaven,” in Ken’s words.  (Another factor in their move to the area was the siren song of Roberts and Cash—that is, our friends Don and Joni of Otter Creek Growers, previously stewards of Elsie’s Farm, a near legendary endeavor that introduced many Twin Citizens to the wonders of this green, rolling land.  But not us; we didn’t really get to know Don and Joni until we started coming out to Bide-A-Wee. Along with Don and Joni, Ken also acknowledges local farmers Kate Stout and Mike and Patty Wright-Racette for helping them to get started.)

Once they were living in the country, the path to Hay River oil wound its way through their interests and experiences in an unpredictable but, in the end, undeniably organic fashion.  Ken was a life-long gardener with a plant science education, both Ken and Jay were extremely interested in sustainable foods, and they had encountered pumpkin seed oil via Ken’s one-time employer, Horst Rechelbacher—that’s the Horst, of the Aveda company, a native of Austria.  With no American pumpkin seed oil in production at the time, there was clearly a hole in the upscale oil market, and they decided to fill it.

For several years they tested a variety of “naked seeded” oil pumpkins, looking for the best match for the climate.  A trial pressing of their chosen variety took place in 2005.  “At every turn, we've had to invent our own way. Being the first pumpkin seed oil produced in the U.S. meant that there simply was not anyone to tell us what to do or warn us about the pot holes,” Ken wrote in an email.

The growing is the easy part, according to Ken:  “After all, they’re pumpkins, not orchids.”  And the oil, he said, practically sells itself, as well.  Keeping the whole endeavor very local, the seeds are processed by Botanic Oil in Spooner, WI.  Harvesting is probably the hardest part.  For the first few years everything was done by hand: “Very pleasant, very communal, very cool and very expensive.”  Twenty to forty people gathered for these great pumpkin emptying parties.  

When Mary and I encountered Ken and crew last fall they were in the midst of a maiden run with a new, custom-built harvester that wasn’t working very well.  Ken was cordial and smiling when we stopped on a drive to see what strange things were happening in that Barron County field on a choice October day, but he later told me that much cursing had preceded our arrival.  The custom machine was temperamental, and slow; they’re now looking in to buying a European-made harvester.

Ken Seguine and crew harvesting pumpkins

Now about the oil.  Maybe start with the color, which is remarkable.  The Hay River website describes it as dark red, but it can also appear to be a striking dark green, depending on the light and whether you’re looking at a thin or thick layer of it.  This phenomenon is called dichromatism.   Perhaps it has to do with red and green being complementary colors, which is also a factor in red-green color blindness, with which your faithful correspondent is blessed.  But still I have no trouble appreciating the beauty of the oil’s color; to me it appears mostly to be a deep forest green.  The color makes it a splendid choice for garnishing pale, contrasting foods—we’ve used it on polenta, and drizzled on poached eggs.

Polenta with pumpkin seed oil, pan-seared Superior whitefish

The way the seeds are processed contributes to both the color and the aroma of the oil:  the seeds are toasted, then cold-pressed.  The toasting lends a nutty fragrance and flavor, but there’s still a fruity component to the scent.  I’ve often found a simpatico between the smell of chanterelles and that of a fresh sliced pumpkin, and I get some of that in the oil’s aroma, too.  It’s one of the things that led me to concoct the salad below.  As dark as the oil is, you might expect a real noseful when you take a sniff, but it’s subtle, much milder than sesame oil, which can easily take over a dish.  The tempered insinuations of Hay River oil make it much more versatile than I would have thought.  It threads through a salad and nicely blends with the other flavors, while providing a uniquely silky unctuousness.  I wouldn’t splash it into every salad I make, but then, I wouldn’t do that with a really expensive olive oil, either.

Raw squash, celery root, and apple salad with pumpkin oil dressing 

Which brings us to the price.  At nearly $20 for a 250 ml (8.45 ounce) bottle, it’s certainly on the spendy side.  But a little does go a long way, and for adding unique, local flavor to my cooking, I’m happy to keep a bottle on hand (Ken and Jay did give me one bottle to experiment with).  Ken hopes that scaling up production and making the processing less labor intensive will help to bring down the price.  Cooking and salad oil have been one glaring lack in the pantries of those of us trying to keep our food as local as possible; with Hay River pumpkin oil and Minnesota’s Smude cold-pressed sunflower oil, I’m on the verge of phasing out canola, and I’m using way less olive oil than I used to.  I get really excited to see these kinds of products come on the market, and I feel extremely grateful to people like Ken and Jay and the Smude family, true visionaries, for making them available to us.

Ken suggests using the oil drizzled over squash soup, lightly salted as a bread dip, or even on vanilla ice cream—I’ve not tried the latter, but it sounds intriguing.  In a salad dressing made with pumpkin oil, I think the usual proportions of three parts oil to one of acid would be overwhelming.  In the dressing for the chanterelles and green bean salad below, I went one to one, and still the pumpkin oil flavor was pronounced, very pleasantly so.  Maybe the best way to describe the flavor of this oil is to say that it’s assertive, but not aggressive; so it won’t take over a salad made with tender spring greens, but can stand up to stronger flavors, like wild mushrooms, or beets.

Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil is pretty easy to find in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin  See here for exact locations.

Shaved Chanterelle and Haricots Verts Salad with Raspberries and Pumpkin Seed Oil Vinaigrette

Except for the salt, this salad is one hundred percent local, and with chanterelles and pumpkin seed oil, it combines two of the most distinctive flavors I know.  A total whim based entirely on seasonal convergence and my own personal association of chanterelles and pumpkins, it is a splendid blend of contrasting and complementary flavors, aromas, and textures.  If you don’t have a really good cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar might work, or try a bit less sherry vinegar.  The raspberries provide bright flavor and lovely color.  I used small wild red and black raspberries.  Chanterelles are unique among mushrooms in nearly every respect, but I suspect that a firm cultivated mushroom, like shitake, might work; or perhaps oysters?  Worth a try. This is a keeper.

Serves two

4 medium chanterelles, about 2 ounces total
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
20 small haricots verts
1 tablespoon minced shallot or sweet onion
2 tablespoons raspberries
Chervil for garnish, optional

1 tablespoon pumpkin seed oil
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon maple syrup
Pinch salt
Coarse sea salt

In a small saucepan blanch the beans in boiling water for 1 ½ to 2 minutes.  Drain and refresh under cold running water. Drain and set aside.

Place each chanterelle cap side down on a cutting board and slice very thinly through the stem end to the cap.  Melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat and add the chanterelles and a pinch of salt.  Toss the chanterelles in the butter for about a minute, then add 3 tablespoons of water, cover the skillet, and cook for 2 minutes.  Remove the lid and add the shallot or onion, and continue cooking over medium heat until the water has evaporated.  Cook for another minute, then remove the chanterelles from the pan into a mixing bowl.  Add the beans to the mixing bowl, as well.

Mix the dressing and spoon it over the chanterelles and beans.  Mound the salad on small plates and garnish with raspberries—a perhaps 8 per person.  Sprinkle a bit of good coarse sea salt--like sel de Guerande, fleur de sel, or Maldon--over top.  Add a sprig of chervil if you have it.  It is the prettiest of the herbs, I think.

(Disclosure:  Jay Gilbertson, a novelist, reviewed my cookbook on; the review was also printed in the Hay River Review and the Dunn County News.  It was pretty much a dream review, for which I am extremely grateful, and might seem to be beholden, except that I was a fan of Hay River oil well before the book or review appeared.)

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


Jennifer said...

My mouth is watering... I'll be picking some pumpkin oil up when I next have a chance.

cjchubiz said...

I had a lot of Bučno olje when I live three years in Slovenia. The Slovenes are passionate about it much like the southeast Austrians. It was often on salad bars along with yogurt. I imitated the Slovenes in mixing the two on my salad. It becomes addicting.

Trout Caviar said...

It's great stuff, Jennifer. Our latest application was a pizza topped with potato, tomato, sage, and lemon zest tossed with pumpkin seed oil (Lulu's inspiration). Excellent combo.

cjchubiz, the yogurt-oil salad dressing sounds inspired. We have beautiful home-cultured yogurt from local raw milk, so I'm going to give that a try.

Cheers~ Brett

JezMyOpinion said...

Sound yummy, I've never had pumpkin seed oil, but already have several great ideas. Foremost in my mind is w/ portobellos, food of the barn goddess in my soul!