The late summer sun parches, its heat bringing to fruition the seeds for the next generation. Plants spend September gathering the last nutrients from the sun and soil while hardening their seed shells to protect against the winter's frost. The sunflower is the most beautiful testimonial to this life cycle. Head bowing in reverence to its namesake, it is a gorgeous flower surrounding a seed-filled center.
Sunflower seeds are an important foodstuff for all the population of the plains, from the tiniest game birds to prairie dogs, deer, moose and antelope. Indians and early settlers gathered sunflowers for the seeds' high oil content and protein.
Sunflower seeds are still a popular energy-rich snack today, but they are raised commercially mostly for their edible oil, perfect for dressings and cooking.
Sunflowers grow in the wild in many parts of the country. The seeds are easiest to harvest as a whole mature flower.
Dry the flower in the sun, covering it to protect it from birds and squirrels until the seeds are easily released.
Collect the seeds in a towel, closing the edges together to form a pouch, tie with a string to hold. Beat the towel on a hard surface to break the husks loose from the kernels.
Once the husks have been split, transfer the kernels and husks to a bucket of water. Stir vigorously and allow to soak for about 30 minutes.
The kernels will sink to the bottom while the husks rise to the surface. Strain the separated kernels into a colander and dry them on a cookie sheet in an oven heated to 250 degrees.
Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
Store in an airtight jar in a cool place out of direct sunlight.
To make sunflower meal, combine one part dried kernels with three parts all-purpose flour in your food processor and run until a fine meal is obtained. Sift before using for a finer texture. Substitute an equal volume of sunflower meal for the flour in your favorite muffin, pancake or sweet bread dough for a nutty, rich flavor. Add whole or chopped sunflower kernels for additional flavor and texture.
For a terrific garnish for salads, pastas and even desserts, toast sunflower kernels on an ungreased cookie sheet at 325 degrees until light tan, about 12 minutes. Cool to room temperature. The kernels will be crunchier after cooling.
Use chopped toasted kernels as a coating instead of breading for broiled fish.
Place the cooled toasted kernels in a food processor, pulse on and off until a coarse chop is achieved. Do not sift, because the fine crumbs help seal the fish. Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of flour if the meal is moist. Season with salt, pepper and herbs such as chives, parsley and paprika to complete the coating. Broiling works better than baking, because the kernels tend to absorb the moisture from baking.
Sunflower oil is fruity and light from the first pressing. Just as with olive oils, the quality can greatly vary. Be selective and taste the oil to ensure quality.
Sunflower oil is best in dressings because of its neutral flavor. It can be used in cooking, but do not heat beyond 340 degrees because it will break down. Use for light, low-temperature sauteing and low-temperature baking.
Pickerel with sunflower crust
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 cup nonpareil capers
1/4 cup snipped fresh chives (substitute chopped parsley)
salt to taste
freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups sunflower kernels, toasted
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon paprika, mild or hot, to taste
1/2 cup chopped parsley
4 pickerel fillets, about 8 ounces each, trimmed of skin and all bones
sprigs of parsley for garnish
In a medium-size bowl combine lemon juice, all but 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, capers and chives. Season with salt and a generous dose of black pepper. Set aside.
In a food processor, combine the sunflower kernels, bread crumbs, paprika and chopped parsley. Pulse, on and off, to chop to a fine texture. Transfer to a shallow dish for breading.
Rub the surfaces of the pickerel with the remaining olive oil. Press each fillet into the sunflower mixture to completely coat, then place on a broiler pan.
Place the fish under the broiler and cook until done, about 6 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillet.
Center fillet on the serving plate. Stir lemon-caper sauce and spoon a little across each fillet. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and serve.
Jimmy Schmidt is the proprietor of the Rattlesnake Club and Tres Vite and operates the kitchens of River Place Inn. He has written "Cooking for All Seasons" (Macmillan, $24.95).