On the surface, the seasonal lull between winter and spring doesn’t offer much in the way of culinary inspiration. Walking through the farmers markets, shallow-stocked stalls display the dregs of winter’s harvest like the end of a liquidation sale — dried up apples, sprouted, weak garlic, some potatoes and shriveled onions, and maybe a few premature displays of under-ripe berries. With the exception of baby greens, there isn’t a whole lot to be had from our local farms right now. We’re a few weeks off from spring’s bounty, and back in the days of old we would be pulling our pickles, jams, preserves and dry goods from the cellar and waiting for the first shoots of asparagus to rise up and welcome our palettes into the new season.
“We’re all so excited for spring,” says chef and restaurateur Ris Lacoste, “but we’re not going to see asparagus or strawberries until mid-April. I spoke to farmers at the market just last week and they said they had almost nothing right now. We have to just sit and wait. It’s a tough time of year for foodies.”
However, what the farmers are doing right now is planting. And given that it has been such a mild year for rain, says Ris, the soil is in great shape around here. This time last year, it had been such a wet winter that the land was waterlogged, rendering fruits and vegetables quick to rot on the vine. This year there has been a comfortable amount of rain, perfect for the spring harvest. Plants will likely be sprouting in abundance.
For now, though, farmers are focused on the seed. “And if it’s good enough for the farmers,” says Ris, “it’s good enough for me.”
On top of being the springboard of all vegetal life, seeds also carry their own nutritional and culinary merit. It is also worth noting that we don’t want to talk about seeds without talking about nuts. They carry many of the same properties, are dealt with similarly in the kitchen, and are often mistaken for one another. For instance, almonds and Brazil nuts, widely attributed to the nut community, are in fact seeds.
While nuts and seeds are high in fat, they are natural, straight-from-the-source fats with their healthful properties intact, in contrast to many of the processed fats that work their way into our diets today. Many are good sources of vitamins E and B2, and are rich in protein, folate, fiber and essential minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and selenium.
As cooking goes, you can take seeds and nuts in any number of directions. Toast them and the flavors becomes more pronounced. Chop or crush them and you have a crunchy textural element to play with. Mill it into a flourlike meal and they can be used to add flavor and moisture to baked goods or to deliciously thicken a pureed soup. Furthermore, they are a delicious, healthful and filling snack alternative to processed foods like chips and crackers. “A handful of marcona almonds with a cup of coffee is one of the great pleasures in life for me,” says Ris. “As a midmorning or afternoon snack, it’s hard to beat.”
Here are some useful kitchen tricks with some of our favorite seeds and nuts:
Almonds are protein-rich and naturally a bit on the sweet side. They are amazingly versatile and work seamlessly with both sweet and savory dishes. You can buy them slivered in the baking section, toast them and add them to anything. Sprinkle them on salad, cereal or oatmeal (see our oatmeal column at www.Georgetowner.com for more on that). Pile them over desserts and fruit salad. You can use them as a crust for fish and white meat (almond-crusted salmon, tilapia or chicken are all winners). They are great in or on muffins and mixed into cookie dough. If you have an ice-cream maker, throw a handful into your next batch of vanilla or honey ice-cream. You’ll be amazed.
Brazil nuts are the giants of the nut world, with a protein, calcium and omega-3 profile to match their size. They’re also up there in fat content, alongside pecans and macadamias, with almost 70-percent fat and a creamy flesh that lends itself nicely to pesto — and they’re a cheaper alternative to pine nuts. If you really want to surprise and impress your guests, grate them with a microplane for a wonderfully light parmesan-like garnish on pastas or salads. You can even mix it in with a homemade salad dressing.
A moderate sprinkling of flaxseeds on top of cereal, grains or oatmeal is a nice, subtly smoky touch and can help aid digestion. Sneak them into muffins or scones. Ground flaxseeds blended with water are a common substitute for egg whites in baking.
The gorgeous, flat green Pumpkin seed, a staple in Ris’s kitchen, is a hallmark ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Also called pepitas, they lend themselves nicely to breads, soups and salads. Ground up with spices, they provide subtle seasoning and can even serve as a base for vinaigrettes. Sikil Pak, a pumpkin seed dip, is made from toasted pepitas pureed with garlic, habanero and tomato.
Walnuts are excellent in stuffings, salads, granola, pancakes, cookies and breads (they are also the author’s favorite cereal topping—just crush them up and sprinkle on your next bowl). Raw walnuts were also found to have twice as many antioxidants as other nuts.
Fennel seeds and cumin seeds are the secret weapon of many of Ris’s favorite savory dishes. They add subtle undertones to meats and fish when used in marinades, and as a base aromatic for soups and stews it can take your creations to the next level, adding unprecedented depth of flavor. To really get their flavors out, toast them dry on a hot skillet before you add your oil and vegetables.
Of course, seeds like sesame and poppy are great to crust breads with — like, for instance, bagels. But did you know that mustard seed and celery seed are among the key ingredients to the housemade pickles at Ris? (The recipe is available at www.Georgetowner.com in our pickling column from last year.)
Toasting seeds and nuts:
Flatter nuts and seeds are better toasted in a skillet — pine nuts, sesame seeds and those that have been chopped. Rounder types, such as walnuts or hazelnuts, go in the oven so heat can wrap all the way around them.
In a skillet: Place nuts or seeds in a single layer in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Toss them around every minute or so until fragrant and toasty—about five minutes, depending on the type of seed. Keep a very watchful eye on them, as they go from light to burnt in no time flat.
In the oven or toaster oven: Preheat to 350 degrees. Place the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet so they don’t roll off and toast until they start to darken and get fragrant. Toasting times vary depending on the seed, but this usually takes just a few minutes. They tend to brown faster toward the edge of the baking sheet, so stir them or give the pan a shake once or twice during baking.
Have specific cooking questions or nutty inquiries? Email Ari@Georgetowner.com, and he will consult with the chef and get back to you.