It’s easy, and not wholly unwarranted, to roll one’s eyes at the aisles of exotic, imported “superfoods” in your local yuppie grocery store. These superfoodstuffs are often flavorless, or even outright unpleasant. (Goji berries: worthless, shriveled, lame-tasting superfruits.) Sometimes their packaging claims holistic or magical properties like cancer prevention or weight loss, which is very clearly superbullshit. But seeds, even some of the trendy, irritating ones, like quinoa, are healthful and flexible and typically totally delicious. You should not ignore them just because they have misleading or silly packaging or because Jared Leto once said in an interview that he loves them in his morning smoothie with reclaimed grass clippings and powdered binturong urine.
As for what denotes a seed, well, I am going with the common culinary understanding rather than the scientific one, which defines seeds as an embryonic plant, concealed within a fruit. (Proper nuts, like chestnuts, hazelnuts, acorns are actually a combination of seed and fruit themselves, meaning they don’t have an external fruit. Walnuts, confusingly, are a seed, not a nut, but anyway.) In other words, I am limiting the definition of “seed” to “things which are commonly called seeds,” which excludes pine nuts, legumes like beans or peanuts, and cereals like oats or wheat. Here are some good or popular seeds and what to do with them, and, more importantly, what NOT to do with them, because it is more fun for me to tell you what you’re doing wrong than to tell you how to do something correctly.
We all know about quinoa, right? Protein-packed pseudo-cereal seed, hated by one of the proprietors of this web concern, etc. I love quinoa, provided it’s prepared properly, which is to say, as if it was rice: Two parts salted water, one part quinoa, brought to a boil then covered and simmered for around fifteen or twenty minutes until the individual seeds are translucent except for the little tail thing in the middle. Like rice, it also stir-fries well, especially when a day old, and it has enough protein that you can just serve it with vegetables and get a full meal.
Even though quinoa is sold dried, cooked quinoa is soft and fluffy, so it should not — repeat, not — be thrown into a leafy salad the way that some other crunchy seeds, like sunflower and pumpkin, often are. It provides zero textural assistance and it’s too small to be easily eaten with a fork when mixed fully into the salad. A scoop of quinoa dumped on top of a salad infuriates me. It’s like putting protein powder on your salad: wrong and bad. My favorite thing way to serve quinoa is with roasted vegetables: Take broccoli florets, a handful of walnuts, thinly sliced onions, and very coarsely chopped garlic, toss in olive oil, spread evenly (DO NOT CROWD) on a baking sheet, top with sprigs of fresh thyme, and bake at four hundred degrees, until the broccoli is crispy around the edges. (If it’s not crispy, you didn’t use enough oil. Pour in more oil. This whole meal is composed of vegetables and nuts and seeds, so you can add more oil, and it’ll still be healthy.) Serve over quinoa with a squeeze of lemon. I probably eat this twice a week.
Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, are very underrated! You can eat them year-round, unlike pumpkin or pumpkin-inspired foodstuffs, and because they’re bigger than the other seeds on this list, they can handle different kinds of preparation than the rest. My favorite way to eat them is one of the simplest, as a sort of Mexican bar snack. Get a cast-iron pan hot on the stove, WITHOUT OIL, and toss in a handful of pumpkin seeds. (Seeds are very oily; they don’t need more oil on the outside. All they need is heat to bring up the temperature of the oil inside.) When fragrant (that means when a nice smell wafts out of the pan), toss with chile powder, ground coriander, salt, and let them sit for a second (or two) to allow the heat of the seeds to take the raw spice flavor away. Serve in a bowl with lime juice squeezed on top and probably a Mexican beer.
Love sesame seeds. Big huge flavor. But as with other seeds, people seem to think you should eat them raw. No: Toast them in a dry cast iron pan, the same way you did the pumpkin seeds, until golden and fragrant. Be careful; they will burn very quickly. Once done, they’ll go great with pretty much everything. I like to make a noodle salad with them, which I will happily admit is an attempt to rip off Trader Joe’s Spicy Thai Chicken Noodle Salad. To make your own rip off, cook soba or ramen or any kind of vaguely Asian noodle and cool it down. Then add shredded carrots and toasted sesame seeds. Then toss with this vinaigrette: take ginger (either fresh or frozen, though mine is mostly frozen) and grate it with a microplane directly into a cup; add a neutral oil (grapeseed is good), rice wine vinegar, mirin, a little sesame oil (like two drops), brown sugar, chili garlic paste (the red stuff in the little jar made by the Sriracha people) and salt; I prefer to do this in a tiny glass tupperware, put the lid on, and shake vigorously, but whisk if you want, I suppose.
Also, I haven’t made this sesame ice cream, but it looks amazing.
Sunflower seeds: very good seed. I like to use sunflower seeds (and walnuts) as a substitute for pine nuts, because who can afford pine nuts, and the texture and oil content is similar. So: sunflower seeds make a very good pesto. They work well with basil, but I actually prefer something a little less sweet; arugula and parsley, along with some lemon juice and olive oil, make for a really nice, peppery, herbal pesto. Or try a brittle. This recipe looks good.
5. Flax and Hemp and Chia Seeds
These all kind of suck. If you’re a vegan bodybuilder, I’m sure that flax and hemp seeds are a godsend but let’s not pretend they taste great, while chia is trendy garbage that promises to turn into tapioca-like pudding but it never, ever will. It is a liar and I hate liars.
6. Buckwheat Groats
“Groats,” lol. Anyway, buckwheat groats, better known to some (ahem, Jews) as kasha, is in the rhubarb family. They’re interesting; we’re used to seeing buckwheat in pancakes and soba noodles, but unless you grew up eating the weirdest Jewish dish of all time (kasha varnishkes, a mix of buckwheat groats and bowtie pasta???), the groats themselves may not be familiar. Groats can be cooked like pasta — tossed it into a pot of boiling water and then straining once done — or like quinoa/rice, by simmering until it absorbs all the liquid in the pan. I prefer the second way because the flavors can be better controlled and because the texture is a little less gummy, but it doesn’t matter. Just don’t cook it in the risotto-style as if it was arborio rice, since it will never exude the weird magical starch that makes arborio risotto so creamy.
Buckwheat groats have a much stronger flavor than quinoa, dark and nutty and earthy, and so lots of recipes pair it with earthy stuff like beets and mushrooms. Nope! Disagree! Earth + earth means no flavor contrast. I like treating buckwheat groats like farro or barley, and think they work especially well with bright spring flavors like peas, asparagus, lemon, and parmesan. Try this recipe, but substitute the farro for buckwheat groats; it’ll be both sturdier and more interesting.
Photo by Emily