Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Harvest Indgedient 23: Sunflower Seeds


Technically we have already done at least a couple of New World ingredients that can properly be called "seeds;" but we haven't explored the harvest of an ingredients that is culinarily described as "seeds."  From a culinary and a world economic point of view, these might be the most important New World gift in the form of a lowly seed.

We have also already covered a very close relative of this plant, in Sunroot (aka Sunchoke) which is not grown for it's seeds and is not as nearly well known or available.  Just about everyone on the planet at least knows what a sunflower seed is, if not have tasted them directly.  And they have a wide range of uses, from eating them right of the shells, roasting, making them into meal and used in baking, even popularly pressing them for a very useful and well known oil.  

Sunflower, it turns out are strange plants.  First of all, it is easy to see how it got it's name; the flower that this annual produces looks exactly like a highly stylized sun face, like something you would find in a Van Gogh painting.  So what's so strange about them?  Well first of all, the flower is not strictly speaking a flower in the proper since of the word, instead it is what is botanically known as an inflorence or simply a "flowering head."  The "seed" is also not a seed in the proper use of that word either; instead they are called achene, with the "seed" that it contains being a kernel.  Also, for centuries people thought that sunflowers were completely "heliotropic," or that they track the sun, at a full 180 degrees.  When they are young, they do in fact display heliotropic tendencies, but as they mature the movement becomes less and less, and by full maturity the flower head typical "faces" east--more "bends" east.

Sunflower were first domesticated by at least 2500 BC and are originally native to Central America.  Interestingly, it may have be domesticated a second time in the lower Mississippi valley, the native there having no trade contact (so it is thought) with groups of people to the south of them in what is now lower Texas and upper Mexico.  The reason for this speculation is that the sunflower seeds found in Misssissipian sites have a different DNA pattern than do those originally from Mayan territory.  The earliest domesticated sunflower in that region date from 2300 BC and were found in what is now Tennessee.  

The Otomi appear to be the first group in Mexico to religiously associate the flower with a sun deity; an association that was full blown during Aztec times, where the flower was used in rituals honoring Tonatiuh, the sun god.  By the time Pizarro and his dishonorable band of Spaniards reached the heart of Incan territory in 1500's, the sunflower had already traveled there and was also a very important plant in association with their sun deity, arguably their most in important deity.  Pizarro first encountered this is Tahuantinsuyo.  So strong was this association with religion and the Incan sun god, the Spaniard tried to outlaw the cultivation of this important plant in Incan territory, going so far as to try to eradicate the plant through wanton destruction in the area altogether (they did this with more success with other sacred plants in Mexico).  So again, the Spaniards were the first to introduce this New World food to the rest of the world, were they were taken back to Spain in the 16th century.  

The production of sunflower oil came pretty early after the plant's European introduction.  The plant and the oil speak all over the continent and became wildly popular in Russian, because sunflower seed oil was one of the few oil allowed to be used during the Russian Orthodox Lent.  Ironically, it popularity in Russian spread rapidly to Siberia, where tribes and peoples actually related to some groups on Alaska and Canada got a hold of them and started growing them as a traditional tribal food.  There they also became an important travel food, especially during the winter months.  Today, some of the most interesting naturally produced more modern cultivars actually come from Siberia.  In fact, Russia far and away produces more sunflower seeds than any other country on the planet!

There are actually 3 types of native sunflower used commercially.

1.  Nusun

2.  High Oleic

3.  Linoleic, the most common and the one used for food in the form of seeds.

Each one has it's own unique levels of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.  The seeds are classified by the color of their husks; with black seeds being referred to as "black oil seeds," while striped seeds, which are the most common food source, as called, for that reason, "confectioner's seeds."  In many places around the world, the seeds are also used as animal fodder.   In addition to the seeds, the stalks contain fibers useful making paper.  The hulls are used in some places as a biomass fuel.

Nutritionally speaking, sunflower seeds are very high in linoleic, an essential fatty acid.  The are an excellent source of fiber; and provide some amino acids, principally tryptophan.  They high in vitamin E, and B Complex vitamins (notably:  B1 or thiamine and B5 Pantothenic Acid and folate).  They also contains minerals:  copper, manganese, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, and zinc.  They are also a good vegetable source for iron and calcium.  And, like pecans, have cholesterol lowering agents; in the case of sunflower kernels in the form of pytosterols.  They can be high in sodium if consumed packages and salted, on their own they have only trace amounts of sodium.

In terms of how they are used in the Native kitchen, uses range from servicing them as important "courtesy" food, to grind them into meal for flours and savory cakes, adding to savory nut or bean cakes, candying with honey or maple,  Sunflower seed butter is also home produced, but is gaining commercial value.  They are also popular in vegetarian toppings for a vegan Indian Taco.  Along with pecans, they are a great addition to homemade trail mixes.  In some upscale native American restaurants, like Kai in Arizona they are used to top tuilles with Utah salt crystals (and sometimes lavender).  They are also paired with wild green salads.  They are sometimes used in dressing for Sunroot salads.  They pair particularly well with squash & pumpkin (right time of year for that!), and go into cornbread of various sorts.  Native sun kernel brittles are also popular.  In native gardens, especially in north American, the sunflower is often the "fourth sister" to the traditional "three sisters" of corn, bean and squash planted together.  

Internationally they are used in a lot of local and vegetarian treats.  In Germany they go into sonnenblumenkernbrot (or Sunflower Seed Whole Bread), which is also made with rye flour.  In Greece they go into Dolmas (Stuffed Grape Leaves).  In some place in the Middle East they are tossed into tabbouli.  They can be used to make Italian pesto and biscotti; in some parts of China they are used in vegetable stir-fry, and in Japan they eaten as a snack after being flavored with tamari (Japanese soy sauce).  Sunflower seed bread can be used to make French Toast; in central Europe they are made into sticky buns, strudels and coffee cakes.  In England they are sometime made in scones for teatime dainties.  Weirdly enough, early English food writers John Evelyn and Gerards make mention of how to prepare immature buds or the the whole immature flower bud.  Gerards remarking in his 1633 Herball mentions that the buds are good is dressed hot with butter, and pepper, and also recommends broiling them on a gridiron and eating them with oil and vinegar.  More strangely, Evelyn  writes in 1699 that the flower bud can be dressed like an artichoke and "eaten as a daintie" as soon as the petals appear.  They also go into homemade and store bough bird seed mixtures.

German Rye and Sunflower Bread

The versatile seeds are also used extensively in vegetarian cooking.  Together with beans or some other grains or seeds, like millet, they can be made into a vegetarian "meatloaf."  Sunflower sprouts are gaining popularity and increasingly  can be found in everyday supermarkets; they are terrific in salads and pair up nicely on vegetable sandwiches, or any sandwiches for that matter, especially if the fillings include avocado.  They go into a vegetarian pasta toppings, in the Philippines they are put into tofu salads; they make great meatless stuffing for mushrooms as a appetizer and in Israel they are put on or in bagels.  Of course, they are sold packaged as snacks, and are sometimes flavored...David even sells a Dill Pickle flavored sunflower seed pack!  And as John Evelyn suggested centuries ago, the petals are even gaining popularity as a salad ingredient.

Sunflower Seed Wedding Cakes

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