Photo Courtesy: Stony Brook WholeHeartedFoods
Way before it's time to peel back the skins from the mushy goodness of steaming, roasted squash, the first step is removing those slimy seeds and, if you're a good recycler, dumping them in a compost bin. But to Greg Woodworth, saving those seeds is step one in producing a deep amber-colored, aromatically nutty, squash seed oil, a no-waste answer to upstate New York's abundant fall crop and an American alternative to olive oil.
Once a cookie factory in Boston, Woodworth's now repurposed, renamed, relocated Stony Brook WholeHeartedFoods in Geneva, NY -- co-owned with partner Kelly Coughlin, a public health advocate for water quality -- bottles 20 cases of spent seed oil each week from acorn, delicata, butternut and buttercup squash (and soon, pumpkin) to be shipped to culinary boutique shops, restaurants and grocery stores across the country, like Formaggio Kitchen in Boston and even Whole Foods Market in Dedham, Mass. and Portland, Maine.
Seth Colon, who runs the hyperlocal EAT restaurant in Brooklyn with brother Jordon, suggests adding the oil to whole grains and vegetable salads, like they do on their no-olive-oil menu. "It's very delicate," he says, so it's best not used as a cooking oil, but rather as a dressing. Ken Thomas, kitchen manager at Fore Street in Portland, Maine, agrees. He mostly uses it to build vinaigrettes and garnish soups, drizzling it over the top of squash bisques before sending them off to be swirled at the table. Same goes for Jody Adams, chef-owner of Rialto in Cambridge, who describes it as a great finishing oil that's rich like toasted sesame oil and bold enough to stand up to the restaurant's hearty grains salad with pickled apples, blue cheese and curried pumpkin seeds. Though, with a relatively high smoking point of 425ºF, Woodworth says it's also safe to use at the final stage of stir-frying with a quick toss, or to steam in a covered pan with Brussels sprouts.
Despite the amazing culinary discovery, there was no initial intention to find a viable source of local oil. Woodworth and Coughlin were simply content with their plan to relocate their cookie operation to the Finger Lakes in late 2006 to be part of the growing local food movement in the area. Woodworth had worked his way up the food chain from the back of the house at age 12 in his hometown of Brooklyn, to the front of the house, to a degree from Cornell's Hotel School and a job with top food contracting companies that serviced the likes of Grand Central Station's balcony pubs -- he was perfectly happy running his own cookie company.
But when Finger Lakes-area Martin Farms approached Woodworth about replacing the butter in their cookie recipe with oil from the 20,000 to 30,000 seeds the farm produces each year -- they pre-cut organic, non-GMO squash to be sold cook-ready at grocery stores across the Northeast -- Woodworth had a revelation: "We really saw it as a way to celebrate the regional agricultural efforts of our farmers and agricultural community, in the same way that Spain and Italy celebrates their olive harvest each year," says Woodworth, because "we don't have olive trees growing up here...squash is our celebrity."
Third-generation Martin Farms was in the midst of a research project with Cornell's Food Venture Center (the birthplace for most American apples), but they weren't sure what to do with the oil and weren't convinced people would buy it as a stand-alone product. But a small testing expeller press and nut roaster were on hand to borrow, so Woodworth set out to experiment, while still running the cookie biz.
About six to eight months later, he had convinced Martin Farms that this oil was worth more than a butter substitute; this was a culinary oil. After its first official taste-test around a butcher's block at Formaggio Kitchen in Boston, the manager turned to him and said, "If you have a case, I'll take one right now." Woodworth had made sure he did indeed have a case in his car, ready to go. Before he closed the door behind him and headed back to Geneva to share the good news, Formaggio was already making room on a shelf.
And that's just the half of it. After the seeds are roasted and crushed into oblivion, oil isn't the only extrusion; the process also leaves behind shell hulls formed into seed cake, something Europeans came to know as tubular, dry dog-food-like livestock feed that's high in protein (50%, in fact) and incredibly shelf-safe, lasting in dry storage through the winter. It's a perfect way to get protein into the winter diet of pigs on a neighboring pastured pig farm, The Piggery, which sells some of the finest charcuterie in the State to frequenters of the Ithaca Farmers Market and CSA members in New York City.
But for humans, if the golden, almost brown-butter-like aroma doesn't get you, or the rich and toasty, caramelized squash flavor -- much like the roasted slabs of gourd you sweat over as you strip and slice them into soup -- there's always the promise of 40 percent of daily recommmended vitamin E in every tablespoon.