Gone to seed in the kitchen

There’s a whole world in a seed. When cooked into or sprinkled over a dish, they bring more to the party than a bit of crunch and color and a lot of nutrition.

“I always add them at the very end of cooking,” says Holly Shelowitz, a Rosendale-based nutrition counselor/teacher and founder of www.nourishingwisdom.com, “and even better, after serving: right on the plate or in the bowl, because I love the crunch they provide as well as flavor.”

Most culinary seeds come from dried fruits, and some are ground before cooking or using; but the subtle crunch and spark of the whole ones add a different dimension to dishes, with a freshness that bursts out when your teeth release their aromas.


What ignited my recent passion for seeds in the kitchen were some sunflower seeds in a salad. I had previously known them as tasty little nuggets that were challenging at best to extricate from their pretty striped shells. But at a ‘70s-themed party that I threw recently, I made a salad that paid homage to that era, with iceberg lettuce, spinach, hard-boiled eggs, sliced mushrooms, multi-grain croutons, alfalfa sprouts, avocado, cherry tomatoes, radishes, ripe olives and a generous sprinkling of roasted salted sunflower seeds, which I found in a nice big bag free of those pesky shells. It was an irresistible salad, in large part due to the seeds. They were delicious, sweet and nutty, and I started sprinkling them on every salad or just eating them plain. I’ve heard that you can get them mashed into something called SunButter: a lovely spread for the peanut-allergic.

Sunflower seeds are classic additions to all kinds of healthy breads, too. I love a multi-grain loaf that has a lot going on, full of contrasts in flavor and texture as well as many happy nutrients. And sunflower seeds are a perfect component of healthy breads, whether within or sprinkled on top.

Like nuts, seeds are rich sources of protein and omega-3s, as well as amino acids, antioxidants, fiber, folic acid, vitamin E and B-complex and many healthful minerals. “I use sunflower and pumpkin seeds as a garnish all the time,” says Shelowitz. “They’re great on salads, on top of rice, added to sautéed veggies.” She adds that pumpkin seeds are particularly high in zinc. “It’s a great way to get this important mineral – an important one for prostate health – into the diet in a whole-food form.”

Pumpkin seeds, with their pale smooth shell and olive-green meat within, work in salads, too. Pumpkins or squashes cut open for holiday decorating or veggie side dishes provide a bonus of tasty nutrition: the easy-to-roast seeds. You just wash off all the goopy stuff, dry them off, then coat them lightly in vegetable oil. Additions like salt and pepper are good, too – or even some of the more creative flavorings featured on chow.com, like an appropriate pumpkin-pie-spiced version with sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Try an Old Bay-flavored one with that classic seafood spice, or a “jerk” version with allspice, bay, cinnamon and ground habañero.

Since pre-Columbian times, pumpkin seeds have been loved in Mexico, where they are called pepitas. They use them hulled and toasted, jazzing them up with salt, lime and chilis as a snack, or in a green mole or in papadzules, a stuffed tortilla dish, as well as pollo in pipian, a chicken fricassee that is made in both green and red versions.

Sesame seeds are cute, nutty and buttery, their versatility stretching far beyond topping bagels and burger buns. Shelowitz like them as a garnish, whether raw or toasted. “If you’re making hummus,” she suggests, “you can start with some sesame seeds in the food processor or blender to grind them for some delish flavor and your own tahini.”

In the Low Country of South Carolina they revere what they call benne (from its African name), using sesame seeds in large quantities in crackers and sweets like the benne wafer, a round flat cookie sweetened with brown sugar. In the Mediterranean you’ll find many versions of cookies and sweets heavily studded with sesame seeds. Sticky Asian candies are chock-full of them. There is an intense and simple Greek baklava called sousamenios – a specialty for Christmas Eve – made with olive oil instead of butter and sesame seeds instead of nuts.

A Brazilian empanada that I love to make is stuffed with shrimp and hearts of palm and has a lush dough full of the seeds. See the recipe below. In the classic Moosewood sequel The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (Ten Speed Press, 1982), you’ll find curried eggs hard-boiled and topped with mix of mustard seeds, curry spices, sour cream, yogurt and a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds before broiling. Similar are James McNair’s savory Egyptian Twice-Cooked Eggs in his Breakfast (Arbor House, 1987).

Sesame’s fellow bagel-topper cousin, the poppyseed, is tiny in size but leads in sweetness and crunch. The seed of the opium poppy, it can be a deep blue-gray or white. According to author/actor Madhur Jaffrey, in India only the white ones are used, to thicken sauces.

Poppyseeds can top glazed turnips, go into creamy salad dressings or enhance the Cauliflower Paprikash in Enchanted Broccoli Forest, served over egg noodles. You’ll find them spangling muffins and cakes – often with lemon, which flatters them.

Flaxseeds are the darling of the nutrition world, incredibly healthful. But be careful, advises Shelowitz: “Flaxseeds contain polyunsaturated fat, therefore making them super-sensitive to heat and light. This is why flax oil is sold refrigerated in dark bottles with a short shelf life. Flaxseeds are best not heated, but bought whole and ground as needed. Once ground, it’s best to keep them refrigerated for freshness. They provide good omega-3s and are a natural laxative, good to sprinkle on oatmeal, yogurt, cereal.” They go in breads, muffins, granola, salads, spreads and even smoothies; and like other seeds, their nuttiness peaks when you toast them.

Less sweet and sharper than other seeds, caraway is found less in sweet confections and more often in breads, pork, salmon, potatoes and cheeses. I always throw some in my sauerkraut when I’m cooking it. Caraway is popular in Eastern Europe and is a good source of fiber, as well as all those nutrients that the other seeds have.

Pungent cumin, which has the same crescent shape as caraway, may be my favorite spice for its rich earthiness. When whole and toasted in a skillet rather than ground, its full warm aroma comes out. When I worked at Gallimaufry Good Food, a Providence catering operation, we always ground all our cumin from the whole seed in a coffee mill rather than using it pre-ground. Cumin is a perfect bean spice, good with all kinds of vegetables, and is especially good with lamb. You find it a lot in Middle Eastern, Indian and Mexican dishes.

It’s well worth it to keep a selection of seeds on hand in the pantry. However, you can’t let them sit around too long. “Since seeds are high in good fats, heating accelerates the aging process,” says Shelowitz, “causing them to go rancid fairly quickly, having them go from a healthy food to an unhealthy food. You’ll know when they are beginning to go rancid; they will smell old and have a funky, bitter taste.” If kept in a dry, dark place they should last a while, though; but taste before use.

Roasting seeds almost always makes them more flavorful, but buy them raw if possible rather than pre-roasted. “It’s great to lightly toast them in a dry skillet to add more flavor,” says Shelowitz, “best to buy them raw and roast them yourself to keep them fresh.” When toasting in a skillet, watch carefully; stir often; and, to avoid scorching, take them out of the hot pan the second they smell fragrant.


Holly Shelowitz does nutritional counseling and teaching for individuals and groups as well as private cooking lessons and cooking parties. Upcoming classes include “Greens, Glorious Greens!” on February 1 and “Great, Great Grains!” on March 14 – both for Warren Kitchen and Cutlery in its class space at Country Kitchens on Route 9 in Rhinebeck. Call (845) 876-6208 for more information on those classes. You can reach Holly Anne Shelowitz at (845) 658-7887 or www.nourishingwisdom.com.


Sesame Empanadinhas Filled with Shrimp and Hearts of Palm

These rich and savory little pies are adapted from a recipe from South American Cooking by Barbara Karoff (Aris Books, 1989). The combination of textures and flavors is irresistible. Makes approximately four dozen pies.


For dough:

2 ½ tablespoons sesame seeds

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature

1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened

¼ teaspoon Tabasco sauce

¼ teaspoon salt

½ cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

2 ¼ cups unbleached flour


For filling:

2 large eggs

½ lb. medium or large shrimp in shell

¼ cup chopped scallions (about 3)

1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 ½ tablespoons flour

1 ½ cups milk

1 14-ounce can hearts of palm, rinsed and chopped

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped black (ripe) olives

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro or parsley

½ teaspoon paprika

Pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


In a medium skillet at medium/low heat, toast sesame seeds until golden, stirring constantly and watching carefully.

In a large mixing bowl blend sesame seeds with cream cheese, butter, Tabasco and salt. Add grated Parmesan and mix in. Add flour in batches, stirring to incorporate. Pat dough into ball and chill for 30 to 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, add eggs gently to a saucepan of boiling water to cover, lower heat and simmer 19 minutes. Remove from heat and pour out hot water; add cold several times to cool eggs. Peel, chop and set aside.

Bring a couple of quarts of well-salted water to a boil and add shrimp. Boil two minutes, drain, then run cold water over them to stop cooking. Let cool, shell and dice into small pieces.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a medium skillet or saucepan, melt butter over medium/low heat and add scallions. Cook and stir until they soften, about five to ten minutes, then stir in flour and cook another five minutes or so, stirring. Add milk gradually and cook gently, stirring or whisking, until sauce thickens somewhat. Remove from heat and add eggs, shrimp, hearts of palm, olives, cilantro and paprika. Mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Roll out the piece of dough on a floured board to a thickness of about a quarter-inch, then cut into three-inch circles with a glass or biscuit-cutter. Add a small amount of filling to each dough circle; fold in half and pinch to seal. Place on a cookie sheet and crimp with the tines of a fork. Repeat with remaining dough, keeping it as cool as possible by putting scraps back in the refrigerator.

Bake empanadinhas until golden, about seven to ten minutes.