Seeds of Life

February 11, 2014

As the earth thaws and the change in the air we know as spring embraces our winter-weary bodies, I am acutely aware of the rebirth of all life. We emerge, pale faces turned toward the warmth of the sun, feeling fresh and ready for a new world. We dig our hands in the cool, moist soil and begin the process of life that will bloom as our gardens.

It all starts with tiny seeds. Seeds hold within them the key to life. It’s that simple. Without seeds, there would be no gardens lush with blossoms, vegetables and fruit. Our world would be barren.

With the power of life housed in them, imagine the energy these tiny sources of food bring to our bodies. With the power to grow plants, trees, fruits, vegetables, vines, forests and flowers, seeds provide us with a powerful source of nutrition.

Not all edible, seeds bring a lot more to our diet than ‘crunch.’ And while all nuts are seeds, from almonds to pecans, not all seeds are nuts. Used in baking, salads, stews, breakfast cereals, condiments, the most commonly used seeds are some of the yummiest food sources around. Check these out.

Sunflower seeds are the gift of the beautiful sunflower, petals emanating from its seed-studded center, reflecting the image of its name. The grayish, black seeds are encased in teardrop-shaped shells, often with black and white stripes.

With origins in North America, Native Americans believed that picking sunflowers could make you immortal. It was called a ‘camp follower’ because several North American tribes cultivated it and carried seeds with them as they traveled, planting new crops each time they settled. Modern production of sunflower grew when it was discovered that the seeds produced edible oil as well as seeds for bird food and human snacks.

You can buy them shelled or hulled, which is what I prefer because shelling them takes a lot of time and effort. Since they have a high fat content (think sunflower oil), sunflower seeds will stay freshest if you store them in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.

Pumpkin seeds or pepitas are flat-ish, dark green seeds. These subtly sweet seeds with a soft texture and nutty flavor are available all year, but are at their freshest in the fall when pumpkins are in season.

Believed to be one of the few crops that originated in North America, pumpkins…and their seeds, seem to date back to 7000 BC, pumpkins are now grown the world over and their seeds have become the source of edible oil and nutritious snacks.

Pumpkin seeds should be stored in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer and while they last longer, they seem to lose their fresh taste after one or two months, so enjoy them when you buy them fresh.

Sesame seeds are believed to be one of the first condiments as well as one of the first plants to be used as edible oil, dating back as early as 1600 BC. These tiny, delicate seeds add crunch to any dish and are the main ingredient in tahini.

Used in breads, cookies, salads, stews or as a snack, these richly flavored seeds are one of man’s best sources of nutrition.

Sesame seeds can be bought hulled or unhulled. I prefer the tan unhulled as they provide more valuable fiber than the hulled. They also come in the black variety, which have a richer magnesium content. Store them in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer to avoid them going rancid.

Use sesame seeds in cookies, cakes, breads, dressings, hummus or as a condiment.

Poppy seeds are like tiny hard grains…and yes, these are the same family of poppy seeds of opium fame, but don’t panic. The poppy seeds cultivated for culinary use contain none of the alkaloids that comprise the narcotic.

Their mild, sweet aroma is brought out by roasting or baking, which brings out their sweet and spicy flavor. Used often in baking, poppy seeds can be found in cookies, cakes, strudel fillings, in pretzels, in sauces and my favorite…in cole slaw.

Rich in linoleic acid and oleic acids for heart health, poppy seeds are said to help alleviate the symptoms of asthma, provide essential enzymes, calcium and is said to be an effective remedy for normalizing metabolism.

Flax Seeds were once the domain of ‘health food nuts’ but as people discovered their high omega-3 content, they went mainstream. Everyone knows and loves these little nutrient-dense seeds.

Traced back to 3000 BC, flax seeds seem to have their origin in Babylon and by the 8th century, King Charlemagne passed a law requiring people to eat flax seeds because he believed so strongly in their health benefits. Amazing, right?

Today, flax is found in so many products, from crackers to waffles and all kinds of products in between. It’s popularity springs from the fact that it is the best source of the essential fatty acid, omega-3 in the plant kingdom.

And yummy? These little seeds have a distinctive nutty flavor that lends itself to all kinds of uses, from sprinkling on oatmeal and salads, to whipping into smoothies.

High heat cooking can destroy the omega-3, so flax is often ground (in a coffee bean or spice grinder) and added to a dish at the end of cooking to preserve the EFA’s. While you can use the seeds whole, their nutrients are better absorbed by the body when they are ground.

Chia seeds are becoming more mainstream every day…and not because of the joke gifts we know as chia pets, but because they are proving themselves to be nature’s perfect food. I love chia seeds. They have changed my life, especially in terms of how I train and how well my body recovers. But you don’t need to be an athlete to enjoy the benefits of chia.

Chia seeds can help us lose weight…you heard right. They reduce food cravings by preventing some of the food that you eat from getting absorbed into your system. They can also help your diet by making you feel full because they absorb 10 times their weight in water, forming a bulky gel. They are high in fiber and keep you satisfied longer.

They are easier to digest than flax seeds, and don’t need to be ground up. Store them in an airtight container in the cupboard; they do not need to be refrigerated. They can be eaten raw, with a nice “nutty” flavor or added to just about any recipe. They can be soaked in fruit juice (in Mexico, they call this “chia fresca”). They’re perfect in porridges, puddings and in smoothies.

My personal favorite is to use them in baked goods including breads, cakes and biscuits. Since I bake with only plant-centric ingredients, chia seeds do the job of eggs; they help bind and leaven.

And now…some recipes to help you sow some seeds of health.

Sunflower Seed Bolognese Sauce
You won’t miss the meat!

Makes 3-4 servings

1-2 cups unsalted, toasted sunflower seeds
1 onion, diced
Extra virgin olive oil
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1, 32-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Sea salt
Cracked black pepper
_ teaspoon paprika
_ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
_ cup coarsely chopped pitted black olives
3-4 sprigs fresh basil, leaves removed, shredded

Coarsely chop the sunflower seeds and the onion. Place a small amount of oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté sunflower seeds and onion until lightly browned. Add garlic, tomatoes, spices, salt and pepper to taste, paprika, cinnamon and olives. Stir gently, cover and cook for 10-15 minutes. Stir in fresh basil and serve over your favorite pasta…cooked al dente.

Pumpkin Seed Spread
…or the butter! I love this spread on dark, hearty breads like pumpernickel, but it’s also lovely on whole grain toast or on a sweet bread like carrot or zucchini.

Makes 1 cup

Extra virgin olive oil
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
_ cup raw pumpkin seeds
6 ounces silken tofu
1 tablespoon brown rice syrup
Sea salt
Grated zest of 1 orange
Scant pinch ground cinnamon

Place a small amount of oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté carrots until they are just tender, about 5 minutes. In a separate skillet, lightly dry roast pumpkin seeds, stirring, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes.

Transfer seeds to a food processor and process into a coarse meal. Add cooked carrot, tofu, rice syrup, salt to taste, zest and cinnamon. Puree until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed.

This spread will keep, refrigerated for about a week to ten days.

Sesame Gomashio
This condiment will add flavor and balance to any whole grain or veggie dish. Just sprinkle it on before eating.

Makes _ cup

1 tablespoon sea salt
8 tablespoons unhulled tan or black raw sesame seeds

Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Cook the salt, stirring constantly, for 3-4 minutes. Transfer the salt to a suribachi (ridged mortar and pestle bowl) and grind it with a pestle until all the crystals are crushed. In the same skillet, toast the sesame seeds over medium heat, stirring constantly. Transfer the sesame seeds to the bowl with the salt and grind them with the pestle until the seeds are about half crushed.

Cool the gomashio completely before transferring to a glass jar. This condiment will keep at room temperature for about a month.

The Perfect Chocolate Cupcake

Makes 12 cupcakes

1 _ tablespoons chia seed meal (or seed)
_ cup unsweetened almond milk
1 _ cups sprouted whole wheat flour or whole wheat pastry flour
_ cup semolina flour
2/3 cup cocoa powder (organic, fair trade, if possible)
Generous pinch sea salt
Generous pinch ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
_ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
_ cup avocado oil
2/3 cup brown rice syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon brown rice vinegar
Unsweetened almond milk
_ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
_ cup coarsely chopped baking chocolate

Preheat oven to 350o and lightly oil a 12-cup muffin tin or use cupcake papers.

Soak chia meal or seed in almond milk for 5 minutes or until it thickens slightly.

Mix together all dry ingredients, whisking to ensure the ingredients are well-combined. Mix in oil, syrup, vanilla and vinegar. Stir in chia-almond milk mixture. Slowly mix in additional almond milk to create a thick smooth batter. Fold in nuts and chocolate. Spoon into prepared cups to fill _ full. Bake for 25 minutes or until the tops of the cupcakes spring back to the touch. Cool before serving…if you can!