Going to seeds Tiny packets of flavor are showing up in lots of dishes, adding flair to contemporary cuisines.

June 24, 1998|By Kristin Eddy | Kristin Eddy,Chicago Tribune

Some people may think that American menus have gotten altogether too detailed. The diner often knows by the dessert course which farm grew the soup's vegetables and whether the beef was corn- or grain-fed. But if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty, take a close peek at the plate and try to spot the seeds.

They're popping up everywhere, and on some pretty elegant tables. Pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, once mainly the staple of vegetarians, have gone upscale. Notice the black sesame seeds on the bread sticks served with tuna tartare; the pumpkin seed-dusted scallops; and the white sesame seeds in the guinea hen pot au feu.

"Seeds are really starting to come into fashion now," says chef Scott Ubert. "When I was a kid my mother used to give me handfuls of them; now we toast pumpkin seeds to give them a nuttiness, which is really nice with seafood."

Ubert compares the method to that used in traditional fish preparations such as sole meuniere, in which butter is browned to produce a nutty taste; substituting toasted seeds "really jets up the flavor," Ubert says.

Like many foods currently in fashion, seeds are simply a rediscovered ingredient. Sunflowers and their seeds, for instance, were domesticated in the Southwest before corn, Beth Hensperger writes in her new book, "Breads of the Southwest" (Chronicle, $22.95). The seeds were parched and ground into meal for ash cakes and a sweetened milk drink.

Sesame seeds, "known for their warming energy," according to Monisha Bharadwaj, author of "The Indian Spice Kitchen," have traditionally been eaten in India in feasts that mark the onset of winter. Asian dishes of chicken or shrimp are coated in sesame seeds, while their oil is used extensively.

Source of protein, fat

Pumpkin seeds were a Native American snack long before chefs started pulverizing them into pesto. As an easy source of protein and some fat, pumpkin and sunflower seeds were useful to a people who had to hunt for food; in modern times, it's hikers and campers who have turned to the seeds as a quick energy source.

Tinier, more flavorful seeds, from plants such as mustard, poppy and fennel, are best used for seasoning.

Mustard, nigella (also called black onion), poppy, coriander and cumin seeds also are traditional seasonings that are turning up on menus.

"It's a way of adding flair to contemporary food without making a traditional ethnic recipe," says chef Shawn McClain who uses sesame seeds on a Hawaiian-style marinated salmon.

Tuna, which these days is often served rare to raw, particularly benefits from the crunch and delicate flavor of sesame seeds.

Look for various seeds at natural food and ethnic markets. Because the seeds contain oil, which give them their flavor, they are perishable and should be purchased at stores that have a high product turnover.

If buying in bulk, store seeds in the freezer to prevent rancidity or buy small quantities. The oil in seeds also will add fat to dishes, from 5 grams of fat per tablespoon of sesame seeds to 14 grams per tablespoon of sunflower seeds.

When cooking, the flavor of raw, hulled seeds is brought out best when they are toasted. Simply shake them in a dry skillet over low heat until they color slightly. Be careful not to let the seeds burn.

Seared Tuna With Black Sesame Crust and Mixed Greens

Makes 4 servings

LEMON DRESSING:

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons each, chopped: shallot, chives, green onion

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon each: salt, sugar

freshly ground pepper to taste

TUNA AND GREENS:

4 fillets center-cut ahi tuna, about 4 ounces each

1/2 teaspoon salt

freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/4 cup black sesame seeds

mixed salad greens

For dressing, combine lemon juice, shallot, chives and green onion in small bowl. Whisk in oil in very slow stream. Season with salt, sugar and pepper to taste. Set aside.

For tuna, season fillets with salt and pepper; lightly coat with oil. Put sesame seeds on plate. Coat top and bottom of each fillet with seeds. Heat large, dry skillet over high heat. Add fillets; cook about 3 minutes. Turn; cook until desired doneness, about 3 to 4 minutes for rare.

Divide mixed greens over four plates. Top each with tuna fillet. Drizzle with lemon dressing.

Per serving (with dressing): 235 calories (65 calories from fat); 2 grams carbohydrates; 17 grams fat; 35 milligrams cholesterol; 18 grams protein; 3 grams saturated fat; 360 milligrams sodium; 1 gram fiber

Squash and Sweet Potato Lasagna With Pumpkin Seeds and Prosciutto

Makes 8 servings

LASAGNA:

1 medium acorn squash, seeded, cooked, or 1 can (16 ounces) solid pumpkin

3 sweet potatoes, cooked, peeled

4 ounces prosciutto or ham, chopped

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 box (16 ounces) lasagna noodles, cooked according to package directions

SAUCE:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

3 ounces prosciutto or ham, julienne

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