Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower Seeds

There's a special technique for eating sunflower seeds and, like most kids, I spent hours perfecting it. I'd stockpile a few salted unshelled seeds in one cheek like a squirrel, release them one at a time to crack their fragile armor with my front teeth, extract the kernels and manipulate the empty shells with my tongue to my other cheek for storage. I ate them until my tongue burned from the salt and my throat was parched, but I couldn't get enough.

I still can't. On a recent car trip, a friend and I demolished a full bag, one cheek load at a time.

Sunflower seeds are a complete pleasure--from the huge cheerful flowers to the lively nutty taste of the kernel. Only the curmudgeonest of curmudgeons could fail to have his spirits lifted by the sight of a sunflower in bloom or the sunny taste of a roasted kernel.

They've been enjoyed for at least 3,000 years. Sunflowers are the only North American native plant to become a notable crop around the world, grown today from Russia to France and back to Minnesota. Ancient Native Americans cultivated them as an important source of nutrition, and early American colonists snacked on them, too. Today sunflower seeds are used mostly today as a feed crop for animals (and baseball players).

Whether you grow them for the birds or for yourself, sunflowers are easy to raise, so plan on some next summer. A fun giant variety to try is Mammoth Russian, which grows to twelve feet, bears large, striped, thin-shelled tasty seeds and makes a good screen or background plant. The black varieties used for bird food have a higher oil content and softer shell that's easier for birds to crack--humans, too, for that matter. The traditional gray stripe is the one commercially grown and roasted for the snack industry.

That snack is a good source of protein and carbohydrates--24% protein and 20% carbohydrates. Of course, they are also 40% fat--like most seeds, they are high in oil. Don't let that discourage you, though. There are other good things like zinc and magnesium and calcium and vitamin E in there, too.

Not to mention flavor, which is nutty but not overwhelming, subtle and bright. Perfect for perking up an otherwise bland chicken salad, plunking into the batter of your favorite muffins or kneading into wheat bread for additional nutrition. You can even finely chop the kernels or grind them in a blender and use to coat chicken breasts before baking or sauteéing.

They add crunch to salads, too--sprinkle them on your next one instead of bacon bits or croutons. You can even eat them plain with cheese and apples for an interesting treat.

If you're starting with seeds you collected from a sunflower, put the unshelled sunflower seeds in a large bowl (or in the sink) filled with cold water and swish them around in it so that any dirt, etc. will fall off. Dirt and heavier particles will fall to the bottom and you can scoop the cleaned sunflower seeds out with a slotted spoon or strainer.

The kernels are available shelled or unshelled, toasted or raw. Either way they're an inexpensive snack. Sunflower seeds keep longer when roasted, so toast unshelled seeds in a single layer for 10 minutes on 275 degrees, then keep them in a cool place until you're ready to gobble them up.

Whether or not you salt them is your choice. (Personally, I prefer salted seeds.) To salt the unshelled seeds you need to soak them in a saltwater brine like the commercial producers do to salt the shells and the seeds (they do the same thing with peanuts). Rinse the seeds off and then soak them in a salt and water solution (about 5 parts water to 1 part salt) overnight. Regular table salt will be just fine.

There's no need to dry them first, let the toasting do it. It will take around five more minutes, but since the oven is on anyway you might as well let it do the work.

To salt the shelled seeds you need to coat them with something to make the salt stick. I use non-stick cooking spray, but you can also toss them with vegetable oil (sunflower oil is a natural choice) before tossing them with salt. For spicier seeds, you can use chili or garlic powder or whatever is your favorite.

Serve the seeds (shelled or shucked) at your next informal get together and watch them disappear. If you serve them in the shell, be sure to provide a place to. . . dispose of the, um, leftovers. The shells are edible and full of fiber but most folks prefer to suck off the salt--oh, admit it, you do it too--gobble the kernel and spit out the shell. If you don't want them all over your living room floor, give your guests an acceptable modern version of a spittoon.

For interesting crunch and flavor try tossing the kernels into your cereal or scattering them on top of the cream cheese on your morning bagel.

Treating yourself to a bowl of ice cream? Really make it a treat and adorn it with some salted sunflower kernels. Or, combine a cup and a half of sunflower kernels with one cup of melted milk chocolate morsels and drop spoonfuls onto waxed paper and chill in the refrigerator. These sunflower chocolate chunks are as good for just plain munching as they are for topping ice cream.

But you don't have to fancify sunflower seeds to enjoy them. I think I like the simplest way the best: the unadorned, unshelled seed. Just me and my technique. Left cheek, open shell, eat seed, right cheek. (Spit out shell.) Left cheek, open shell . . .

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