As I was leaving his farm a few weeks ago, a farmer tossed me a parting gift in the form of a large, green and orange orb.
"It's a special variety of pumpkin, called a Kakai, grown specifically for its seeds," he told me.
It was curiously light for its size, suggesting a big air cavity inside. My wife and kids carved it into a scary face. She then came into the house and announced how good the seeds were.
"I'm not surprised, dearest," I prepared to lecture. "It's a special pumpkin bred for ... wait, are you eating the seeds raw?"
Indeed she was. I munched on one myself, had another, and was struck not only by how delicious they were but also how soft. They were a bit slimy, but they air-dried in a few minutes. Roasted, they were divine pumpkin-seed glory. They puffed out in the heat, into oblong chunks of meat that were bereft of the usual coat. Alas, there were surprisingly few seeds inside for such a large pumpkin.
Pumpkins are a powerhouse plant in human history, one that can produce tremendous amounts of edible material in the flowers, flesh, and seeds. A Native American food, pumpkins were one of Christopher Columbus' most valuable New World acquisitions. They were originally cultivated in Spain, but soon found their way to Austria, where they were adopted in a major way.
The province of Styria in Southeast Austria became ground zero for all things pumpkin seed oil. By the 1700s, Styrian bureaucrats were regulating its production. In the late 1800s, a mutant came along in which the seed's hard shell was replaced by a soft membrane, and the naked-seeded pumpkin was born. Its soft-seeded descendants became the progenitors of the finest edible and oil seed pumpkins in the world.
Today, there are about a dozen varieties of naked-seed pumpkins, all of Austrian descent, according to Jay Gilbertson of Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil company in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin. And despite its recent tune-up in Europe, pumpkin is more American than apple pie, he told me on the phone.
When they got started in 2006, Gilbertson and his partner Ken Seguine planted as many pumpkin seed varieties as they could get their hands on, and finally settled on one that grew well on their land. While he wouldn't tell me which variety — "it's our only secret" — he says the seeds are considerably larger and more plentiful than the ones in a Kakai pumpkin.
I went to the store and picked up a few bottles of pumpkin seed oil, one Austrian and one domestic, and played around with them. The domestic, Omega Nutrition brand is lighter; the Austrian Castelmuro brand is darker and stronger. Both have a deeply toasted smell that's almost burnt, almost smoky, but not quite. It is a nutty, oily chord, in baritone, and I could see why it's occasionally used as a replacement for toasted sesame oil in Asian dishes.
The culinary uses of pumpkin seed oil are limited by the fact that you can't cook with it, as it readily breaks down in heat. So it's often added raw to dishes as a finishing touch. In Austria, pumpkin seed oil is added to various preparations of meat, like rare slices of beef, or mixed into salad dressings, often with cider vinegar. It is even added to sweets like vanilla ice cream, to which it imparts its nutty flavor in a pleasing way.
That night I went Styrian-style and put Kürbiskernöl, as they call it, on everything. I drizzled it on salad, salmon, and squash, dipped tomato slices into it, and tried to follow a recipe for pumpkin seed and walnut oil mayonnaise, which failed.
Gilbertson tells me it takes 20 to 40 pumpkins' worth of seeds to make an eight-ounce bottle of oil, which seems like an extraordinary effort. The pumpkin flesh, meanwhile, is basically inedible, he says. But the seeds and their oil alone make the enterprise worth it.
"If I had a million bottles, I could sell every one," Gilbertson says. Unfortunately, the pumpkin-farming conditions in his area have not been favorable recently. "The last two years have been disastrous," he says. "Cool summers and too much moisture."
This made me appreciate my Kakai pumpkin all the more deeply. Those seeds. While they are quite edible raw, cooked they are straight up spectacular, thick and meaty and bursting with flavor. Straight out of the oven and dressed with olive oil, and table and garlic salts, they exploded in my mouth.
It also made me appreciate all pumpkin and squash seeds. Well, the yummy ones, anyway. They really are worth eating, so don't forget the seeds when you carve that pumpkin. At the farmers market, growers can direct you to the pumpkins and squash with the best seeds.
And yeah, those seeds will probably have husks. I chew them up and swallow, husks and all. With all the pumpkin pie I'll soon be eating, I could use a little extra fiber.