It's funny how we find some seeds annoying and unappealing like the bitter ones we accidently bite into from oranges and lemons, the black ones we embarrassingly spit out from watermelons, and the tiny ones that get stuck between our teeth from blackberries, while other seeds are divine in both savory and sweet dishes.
On my recent trip to Toronto, a cosmopolitan melting pot of cuisines, I noticed how foodies creatively incorporated a variety of seeds into a wide range of ethnic dishes. In Eastern European cafés, poppy seed strudel and buns are a favorite sweet. At delis, caraway seeds enliven rye breads. In Middle Eastern eateries, dukkah is a delicious condiment of nuts, seeds and herbs to dial up everything from flat breads and hummus to soups, eggs and pastas. While In Chinatown, black sesame seeds are ground to a fine powder and blended in a green tea brew for an aromatic nutty flavor, and antioxidant boost.
Whether pressed into a healing oil, pulverized into a rich multi-purpose paste (tahini), crushed into a blissful confection (halvah), or used as its seedy self to add cachet and flavor (not to mention nutrition) to bagels, bread sticks, stir fries, salads, sushi, grilled fish or chicken — sesame is the king of seeds.
One of the oldest crops grown and cultivated for its rich oil supply, these precious peewees are one of the most nutrient-dense crops on the planet blessed with an abundant store of proteins, fiber, and vitamins and minerals, especially copper, magnesium, calcium, folate, zinc, iron and B6. This translates to a slew of health benefits from relieving creaky arthritic joints, amping up heart health, putting the skids on anemia, insomnia and type 2 diabetes to boosting collagen production for a youthful complexion, improving bone density, respiratory and oral health, and testosterone levels to ratchet up male libido.
Another petite powerhouse is the pin head-shaped, jet black poppy seed from the dried pods of the poppy (opium) plant. Fortunately, poppy seeds do not have any narcotic properties like their opium cousin that are derived from the same plant. Although, as portrayed in the "Seinfeld" episode when Elaine Benes ate a poppy seed muffin, and tested positive for opiates during an employment drug test, it is best advised to refrain from eating them at least two days before taking any laboratory tests as trace amounts of the notorious alkaloids are present in the seeds.
But who can resist those delicate oilseeds that burst in your mouth with a sweet nutty flavor and chewy texture when indulging in poppy pastries, biscotti, quick breads, scones, rolls and cakes, as well as a condiment for sprinkling and dipping, a vinaigrette dressing for green and fruit salads, and a paste for thickening gravies and sauces. Of Eastern Mediterranean origins cultivated more than 3,000 years ago, both the seeds and oil have been used by ancients for its culinary and healing attributes.
The mighty poppy seed is both a beauty and a health aid — it tempers a fever, keeps the constitution regular, provides a supply of essential minerals and omega-3s to keep moving and non-moving parts (including the heart) humming, while treating assorted skin and scalp disorders.
Hemp seed, much like the poppy, has been wrongly maligned for hundreds of years. While George Washington farmed hemp crops, alas, the cultivation of these is currently banned in this country. However, organic seeds are imported from our Canadian neighbors.
Although it comes from the same plant as marijuana — Cannabis Sativa — hemp, a hybrid with a different genetic make-up, should not be confused with its dopey cousin. The latter is laced with high amounts of the active ingredient THC (5 percent to 20 percent), while hemp's trace amounts (0.3 percent) will not create any psychoactive side effects. So hemp up with this Herculean seed packed with protein, (all 20 amino acids), dietary fiber, and an ideal proportion of heart-healthy omega 3s and 6s, along with stress-relieving Bs.
Hemp alleviates inflammation and boosts the immune system, wards off assorted cancers, balances hormones, aids digestion, improves metabolism, and dials up skin, hair and nail health. Reminiscent of the buttery rich flavor of pine nuts, hemp seeds are a versatile add-in to cereals, yoghurts, soups, sauces, pastas and taboulis, crushed and used as a breading for chicken and fish, or a change-up for nuts in pesto dishes.
The rest of the "seedy" story continues next week.
•••• Recipe: Banana Seedy Smoothie
• 1 frozen banana
• 1 cup almond, coconut, soy or hazelnut milk
• 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
• 1 tablespoon seeds of choice (hemp, chia, flax) or raw oats
• 1 tablespoon almond butter
• 1 tablespoon honey
Method: Add ingredients to a blender and puree to desired consistency. Garnish with additional seeds.