Green Gold, Grüner, & Gemischter Satz
Pumpkin seed oil pairs perfectly with Austrian whites. But which one?
I was already insanely jealous of my friend Hilary. She’d left the world of food media to marry a handsome Austrian winemaker and fled New York for the outskirts of Vienna, where she now tends to their vineyards, makes beautiful wines from obscure umlauted grapes, runs the family’s cozy wine tavern, and generally lives the dream. But that envy grew more profound one morning when — after a long Viennese evening of gemischter satz and schnitzel — I awoke to the classic Austrian hangover breakfast she’d made: a plate of delicately scrambled eggs drizzled with pumpkin seed oil. Petty jealousy gave way to revelation over the thick, dark green oil with intense and complex, but subtle, flavors: a little nutty, a little roasted, a little earthy, a little bitter.
Soon enough I became obsessed with pumpkin seed oil, or Kürbiskernöl, which is not made from what you scoop out of your typical jack-o-lantern but comes solely from special pumpkins that grow in Styria, in the southeast of Austria near the Slovenian border. For centuries, people in Central Europe have treasured this “green gold.” All kinds of health and beauty claims swirl around pumpkin seed oil. It’s supposedly good for the prostate and urinary tract, lowers cholesterol, tightens skin and prevents pregnancy stretch marks, and even possibly stops hair loss (I, unfortunately, discovered this too late).
Who knows if any of this wellness rigmarole is true, but it added another layer to the oil’s aura. Eventually, though, pumpkin seed oil went from something slightly exotic to something cozy I drizzled on roasted acorn squash, grilled eggplant, potatoes, or creamy soup—or to whisk into a Tuesday night salad dressing. It’s the sort of ingredient that’s not impossible to find, but is often out of stock at Whole Foods. (The most readily available brand is La Tourangelle.)
It has become a mainstay of my own pantry, a tiny way to shake things up when I get bored. Sometimes I do an inauthentic pesto of arugula, mint, garlic, pumpkin seeds, and Parmigiano, in which I replace half the olive oil with pumpkin seed oil. I drizzle it on slices of a baguette or sourdough, which I then top with chorizo and blue cheese for a decadent sandwich. Or I make a ridiculously simple and delicious spread by blending a couple of tablespoons of pumpkin seed oil with a block of softened cream cheese, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a quarter-cup of chopped pumpkin seeds, salt and pepper. This is amazing on dark bread or a morning bagel.
My favorite use of green gold is to bring a new, pumpkin seed twist to cauliflower. Yes, I know: New Ways to Do Cauliflower is a food writing staple. We’ve seen cauliflower grilled as a “steak,” turned into “pasta,” deep-fried, buffalo-sauced, wrapped in a taco. If you’re not cauliflowered out, check out my recipe below.
All of which leads us to the obvious question for the Everyday Drinking newsletter: What beverage do we pair with pumpkin seed oil? This is thankfully one of the easier pairing situations we may ever face. Austrian pumpkin seed oil just wants to be paired with Austrian white wine. But which?
The reflexive pairing advice of wine professionals is often “what grows together goes together.” In a strict sense, this would mean white wines from Styria, the region in southeastern Austria where the special pumpkins grow (where the main variety is actually sauvignon blanc). Honestly, though, it can be difficult to find Styrian wines in the U.S. I’m not saying you can’t, but it’s not easy. Valerie Kathawala (co-editor of Trink magazine) wrote an essay last year about snagging a rare Styrian gelber muskateller from coveted biodynamic producer, Andreas Tscheppe to pair alongside scrambled eggs drizzled with pumpkin seed oil. I don’t doubt that an amazing bottle like that could elevate any dish to dreaminess.
But I guess what I’m trying to do here is normalize pumpkin seed oil as an everyday ingredient. I don’t want to position it as something fussy, or one that requires opening a $50 bottle. Instead, I’m looking for an everyday wine pairing.
Which (perhaps unsurprisingly for those of you who’ve read my work) leads me directly to my favorite good-value, food-friendly wine: classic grüner veltliner from along the Danube. Yes, grüner veltliner. I know, I know: I’ve talked ad nauseaum about grüner veltliner over the years, in books, in articles, on podcasts, at a bar or table with anyone who will listen.
Grüner veltliner simply has a knack for pairing with the kinds of food we eat every day—takeout sushi, spicy chicken sandwiches, pad thai, guacamole, paneer tikka masala and, yes, salads. It plays nicely with notoriously hard-to-pair vegetables like asparagus. Beyond that, there’s a very reliable value ladder with Austrian grüner veltliner. If I buy a $17 or $22 or $27 bottle from regions such as Kamptal, Kremstal, Traisental, Wagram, or Wachau, I know what I am getting. That’s not to say grüner veltliner is monochromatic. It’s super diverse and site specific. Sometimes rich and aromatic, sometimes crisp and mineral, often peppery or spicy, always with lively acidity, and expressive flavor without being too fruity.
I saw this diversity recently when I tasted a bunch of 2019s that I’d rounded up by mail-order purchase. Many consider 2019 to be Austria’s best vintage of the decade, especially for the whites. But I was actually shocked by how little of 2019 Austrian wine I could find to buy in the U.S. Perhaps collectors have finally woken up to the charms of grüner veltliner and stashed it away? More likely, buyers scaled back their Austrian orders during the pandemic. That may soon change, as the Austrian Wine Marketing Board announced that export value to the U.S. is up 33% in the first six months of 2021.
In any case, among the dozen or so I tasted, I found myself drawn back to a few classics, all under $25:
Pretty, spring-like aromas of flowers, herbs, fresh grass. Subtle, dry palate of underripe nectarine, ginger, flint, and talc but juicy ripe fruit on the finish.
A study in tension, with nose of apricot, white blossoms, and tropical whiff. Full-bodied, stony, salty, peppery. I hate to say “white Burgundy-like” but here we are.
Perfumed, waxy nose of pear, golden apple, and citrus blossom. Clean, lively, and mineral on the palate, with an underlying creaminess and complexity. Beautiful.
Of course, as soon as I finished my tasting of grüner veltliner, I started to wonder if there was an even better pairing with the pumpkin seed oil. And I thought back to my friends, at Zahel winery in Vienna, who first introduced me to the oil on that hungover morning.
Yes, they make wine within the city limits of Vienna. With 1,700 acres of vineyards, it’s the only major capital that produces wine. In fact, over half of the city’s land is agricultural, concentrated in the outer districts north and west of the center. These cozy neighborhoods were once villages before being subsumed into the city proper, and they are dotted with heuriger, the traditional wine taverns central to the Viennese experience. Heuriger, which means “this year’s wine,” dates to an emperor’s decree in the 18th century that allowed winemakers to open simple restaurants to sell their new wine. Many heurigen, even now, are only open several weeks per year. The Zahels run a popular heuriger in the neighborhood of Mauer, which is 20 minutes from the city center (Anthony Bourdain once visited).
But what Zahel is most famous for is classic field blends, called gemischter satz (meaning literally a “mixed set” or “mixed bag”). That’s the traditional everyday wine of Vienna, and may have a dozen or more varieties in the blend.
I write at length about Wiener Gemischter Satz in Godforsaken Grapes, but here are the basics: Since 2013, Wiener Gemischter Satz has been an official DAC in Austria, recognizing a wine style as well as a geographic area. To be Wiener Gemischter Satz, a wine must have at least three and no more than 20 grape varieties in the field blend. The first grape must constitute no more than 50% of the blend, and the third grape must constitute at least 10% of the blend. These are meant to be bright, lively white wines aged in stainless steel; no Wiener Gemischter Satz can be more than 12.5% alcohol, and it must not have a “strongly recognizable expression” of oak. These are honest wines, balanced with crispness, flavor, and a lacy lightness.
I hadn’t tasted gemischter satz since before the pandemic, and so I opened an old favorite, a bottle of Zahel Wiener Gemischter Satz Mauer 2020 ($20), a blend of grüner Veltliner, riesling, pinot gris, pinot blanc, chardonnay, and traminer. Wow, what a bright, energetic, friendly wine. Fruity and zesty and drinkable, yet sneakily complex. Such a happy wine. It was so happy and drinkable, in fact, that the wine went very quickly. So I also opened a bottle of Zahel Orange T Orangetraube 2020 ($23), a wine made from a single, obscure grape called orangetraube. Still happy, but also intense, spicy, pithy, full of warm citrus fruit.
Both wines were excellent dinner companions for a meal drizzled with plenty of green gold. It all made me miss Vienna very much. And perhaps even more so, it made me— wait for it—green with envy for friends who get to live in an Austrian vineyard.
Roasted Cauliflower with Pumpkins Seed, Capers, & Raisins
You simply roast your cauliflower florets the old-fashioned way, with olive oil, salt, and pepper, tossing in the seeds about halfway through. As it roasts, you whisk together a simple dressing of pumpkin seed oil, capers, lemon, and honey, then toss with everything with raisins and top with parsley. It’s crunchy and soft, earthy and fresh, salty and sweet, and can be a meal or a side dish.
1 cauliflower head, cut into small florets
½ cup pumpkin seeds
Salt and pepper
3-4 tablespoons raisins
For the dressing:
2-3 tablespoons chopped capers
Juice of one lemon
2-3 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil
1 tablespoon honey
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Toss the cauliflower with olive oil, salt, and pepper, place on a sheet pan and into the oven. Roast for 15-20 minutes until tender, but not too dark. About halfway through roasting, add the pumpkin seeds, sprinkling around the tray. Prepare the raisins by soaking them in boiling water for a couple minutes, then draining and chopping. When cauliflower and seeds are done, set aside and allow to cool slightly.
In a small bowl, whisk together the pumpkin seed oil, lemon juice, capers, and honey. Drizzle on the cauliflower and seeds, add the raisins, and toss mixing everything together. Top with chopped parsley and serve.