By Kerri Conan
This time of year, Kansas is usually lousy with sunflowers. Precisely what you’d expect from “the sunflower state.” Several small-headed varieties grow from ditches and cracks in the pavement, while fields of commodity plants—with their massive faces and sturdy stalks—bow in the wind like a battalion of chorus lines. Here in the eastern part of the state, where the weather has been strange even for tornado alley, we’re not getting many blooms this year. Fortunately, our co-op in Lawrence started carrying local sunflower oil this summer: So everything is coming up golden in the kitchen.
Bainter is the producer, from the small town of Hoxie. Maybe I’m stretching the standard “local” radius a bit. But in this case—since single-source cooking oil is a rare foodstuff in America—I’m counting 333 miles across my beloved state as nearby. Bainter oil isn’t cold pressed, but claims to be refined without chemical solvents. I believe it. The slightly cloudy color is the shade of melted butter, with a moderately assertive balance of grassy, floral, and nutty flavors. The viscosity doesn’t turn your mouth furry. And to my pleasant surprise the oil doesn’t smoke, burn, or go bitter when super-heated. If you have to ask about the price, you can afford it. This is the Midwest after all. Check out the company website. (And while you’re there, feel free to add a piece of Bainter’s patented hydraulic farm equipment to your shopping cart.)
Am I swearing off olive oil? No way. I’m just reaching for this stuff whenever I might have otherwise used grapeseed, peanut, or other vegetable oil: Dressing an Asian-style slaw; non-butter baking; or stir-, pan-, or deep-frying. Good example: Zucchini (also local) cut thin on a Japanese mandoline. Put about 1 1/2 inches of the sunflower oil in a deep pot over medium-high heat. When a test slice of zucchini sizzles immediately upon impact, add a couple handfuls of the shards. Cook, tossing them with a spider once in a while, until all their water bubbles off and they begin to brown and crisp. (This might take up to 10 minutes, but once they get going they’ll color fast so keep an eye on them.) Drain on paper towels and repeat with another batch. Sprinkle the tangle with coarse salt while the zucchini is still hot. Smelling this gorgeous oil while the vegetables are cooking is almost as satisfying as the eating.