Seeds of Vitality
Chia, flax and other seeds prove that big health and
culinary benefits can come in small packages.
By Linda Melone
They’ve come a long way from being the 1970s’ favorite gag gift. Chia seeds, once known as the curly “coat” on Chia Pets (admit it, you had one), have been cited by no less an authority than J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency, as one of this year’s hot food trends. And JWT isn’t the only trendspotter in this regard—chefs at some of the nation’s most notable eateries are finding creative ways to use the flavor and crunch of chia and other seeds in recipes from one end of the menu to the other. Here are some of the most popular seeds.
A species of flowering plant in the mint family native to Central America, chia was a dietary staple of the ancient Mayans and Aztecs.
Nutrition Notes: Chia is a good source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, says Keri Gans, MS, RD, a New York nutrition consultant and author of The Small Change Diet (Gallery). “One serving contains more than 10 grams of fiber. Chia seeds may help reduce LDL, or ‘bad,’ cholesterol and also offer heart benefits,” Gans says. A serving contains between 120 and 140 calories, so as with all seeds, don’t overdo chia if you’re watching your weight.
Kitchen Tips: Chia seeds may be used as a thickener for those who want to avoid flour due to a gluten allergy or sensitivity, says Joshua Lewin, executive chef at Beacon Hill Bistro in Boston. He suggests using chia as a soup base, saying, “Puree your vegetables, such as turnips or sweet potatoes, with freshly ground chia seed, then return them to the pot to simmer briefly for a pleasantly thickened soup.” For dessert, Kristen Nelson Thibeault, chef and owner of the Boston-based gourmet vegan Kombu Kitchen, offers this simple Vanilla Chia Seed Pudding recipe: Bring two cups coconut milk to a soft boil. Add one tablespoon vanilla extract, three tablespoons agave syrup, a dash of cinnamon and salt. Add 3/4 cup raw chia seeds and reduce to a simmer for five minutes. Take off the heat and let cool, adjusting the thickness to your preference with more coconut milk.
Also known as linseed, flax dates back to ancient Egyptian times and can be found in brown and yellow/golden varieties. The plant’s fibers are used to produce linen.
Nutrition Notes: Nutritionally, flax seeds are similar to chia but are slightly richer in omega-3 fatty acids, says Gans. The omega-3 found in flax, alpha linolenic acid (ALA), may help reduce inflammation and heart disease risk. The high fiber in flax seed also helps promote proper functioning of the gastrointestinal tract as well as helping to stabilize blood sugar.
Kitchen Tips: Gans suggests grinding flax seed with oatmeal for a tasty and nutritious breading for chicken breasts. Or try this Flax Seed Cracker recipe from Thibeault: Mix two cups golden flax seeds with two tablespoons each of minced garlic, dried chives and dried onion flakes. Add one teaspoon salt and a pinch of cayenne with one cup warm water. Spread thinly on a greased sheet pan. Cover with parchment paper and press to even out. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Let cool completely and break apart into rough pieces. Keep in a sealed container.
The “hemp seed nut” refers to the shelled hemp seed, from which all hemp food products originate. The edible portion resembles the seeds of other cultivated grains, particularly sesame seeds in size and color.
Nutrition Notes: Hemp is second only to soybeans in protein content, with 10 grams of protein in a one-ounce serving, says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, board-certified specialist in sport dietetics and the Dallas Cowboys sports dietitian. “Hemp seeds also contain three grams of arginine per serving, an amino acid that causes relaxation of blood vessels and that can be helpful for those with vascular disease,” Goodson adds. Hemp seed’s high fiber content provides satiety and may also help lower LDL cholesterol levels. Goodson says the seeds’ fatty acid content also helps reduce inflammation.
Kitchen Tips: Hemp seeds are slightly oily and have a flavor not unlike pine nuts, which makes them a natural fit for pesto—in fact, a great alternative for people allergic to pine nuts, says Lewin. “Use your standard pesto recipe and replace half or all of the pine nut with hemp seed,” he suggests. Or try Thibeault’s Hemp Seed Kale Salad: Toss one cup hemp seeds with one tablespoon sunflower oil and a pinch of salt. Toast for five to seven minutes in a 350-degree oven. Sprinkle on raw kale salad, then dress with lemon juice and hemp seed oil along with salt and pepper to taste.
Also known by its Spanish name, pepita, light green pumpkin seed is a popular ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Pumpkin seeds are often available roasted and salted as a snack food.
Nutrition Notes: Pumpkin seeds are full of the monounsaturated fats that help lower LDL cholesterol while increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol, says Goodson. “They’re also an excellent source of the amino acids tryptophan and glutamate (which help improve sleep and decrease anxiety) as well as vitamin E, which prevents tissue cells from free radical damage,” she adds. What’s more, you’ll find copper, manganese, calcium, zinc and other minerals in pumpkin seeds.
Kitchen Tips: The secret to this quick pumpkin seed recipe lies in blanching the seeds to soften them just before roasting, says chef and owner Will Gilson of Puritan & Co. in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who notes, “The dip in boiling water also helps separate the seeds from those last pesky strings of pumpkin flesh.” Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove seeds from one pumpkin. Bring water to boil in pot large enough to hold all the seeds easily and blanch for 30 seconds. Dry seeds, then toss them while still hot in a bowl with enough vegetable oil to coat. Place on a baking sheet large enough to hold all the seeds in a single layer and bake about seven to 10 minutes, or until seeds become crispy. Toss with salt and/or cumin, coriander and smoked paprika.
The nutty, delicate flavor of sesame seeds has long made them popular in the tropical parts of the world when they are grown. They have provided culinary oil for thousands of years.
Nutrition Notes: High in minerals such as calcium and magnesium and low in cholesterol and sodium, an ounce of sesame seeds also provides three grams of fiber and five grams of protein. India’s Ayurvedic medicine uses sesame oil for massage and other therapeutic purposes.
Kitchen Tips: “Sesame seeds make a good crust for tuna or chicken,” says Gans. Or try this simple seasoning blend from Lewin: Toast sesame seeds (a combination of white and black seeds makes for a fun presentation) and season liberally with salt. Grind coarsely with dried nori (seaweed) for a healthy, delicious and texturally interesting finishing “salt” for cooked rice. “I use sesame seeds in everything, from soups and salads to desserts,” says executive chef Fabian Quiros of Salt Creek Grille in Princeton, New Jersey. “The nutty flavor is especially great in the Mexican sauce mole poblano, which can be served with seafood, poultry or any red meat.”
Sunflower seeds with solid black husks are called “black oil” sunflower seeds and are used as a nutritious bird food, while food-grade sunflower seeds have striped husks.
Nutrition Notes: In addition to its healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids, an ounce of sunflower seeds contains five grams of protein, says Goodson. “They also contain 75% of your daily vitamin D needs plus a variety of minerals, including selenium, which works with vitamin E as an antioxidant to help reduce heart disease risk,” she notes.
Kitchen Tips: Try this quick String Bean Sunflower Salad recipe from Joe Fontanals, executive chef of the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel: Blanch one pound green beans in salted water and shock in cold water. Place three ounces hoisin sauce in a bowl with the grated juice of a thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger. Mix together with one tablespoon sherry vinegar. Slowly add a half-teaspoon sesame oil and a quarter-cup sunflower oil, and toss with the green beans. Toast a quarter-cup sunflower seeds in a sauté pan over medium-low flame and add to the beans; salt and pepper to taste.
Making It a Chia Meal
Chia Garden Burgers
1 can chickpeas (15 oz)
1 clove garlic
1 tbsp dry chia seeds
1 tsp smoked paprika
1⁄2 tsp coriander
1⁄2 tsp cumin
1⁄2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 carrot (or enough to make 1/2 cup when shredded)
1 1⁄2 cup fresh spinach
3⁄4 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 tbsp olive oil
1. Rinse and drain the chickpeas, then add them to food processor. Mince the garlic clove; add, along with the chia and all the spices, to the food processor. Pulse until smooth.
2. Empty the bean mixture into a medium-sized bowl. Put the carrot into the food processor and shred. By hand, cut the fresh spinach into smaller pieces and add to the bowl along with the shredded carrot. Stir in the eggs and breadcrumbs until well combined.
3. Divide into 4 (regular) or 6 (slider-sized) patties. Flatten the patties to about 1⁄2” to 3⁄4” inch so they will crisp properly on the outside.
4. Preheat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, carefully lay the patties into the skillet; cook about 3 to 4 minutes per side. When done, the outside should be lightly browned and slightly crisp.
Good toppings: roasted red pepper slices, avocado slices, fresh tomato, guacamole
Awesome Apple Chia Salad
1-2 Granny Smith apples (enough to make 1/2 cup when chopped)
1-2 Gala apples (enough to make 1/2 cup when chopped)
2⁄3 cup shredded broccoli slaw*
1⁄2 cup sliced carrot
2 tbsp nonfat sour cream
1 tsp dry chia seeds
1 tbsp frozen apple juice concentrate (thawed)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp sugar or 1/2 tsp stevia
1. Chop the apples into bite-sized pieces. Place the apple pieces, broccoli slaw and carrot slices in a large bowl.
2. In a small bowl, combine the remaining ingredients. Stir or whisk to thoroughly mix, then pour over the contents of the large bowl. Stir to coat all the pieces thoroughly. Stir again and the seeds will cling to the dressing and begin to gel.
* Broccoli slaw is available bagged in the produce section. If you can’t find it, substitute 1/3 cup each shredded red and green cabbage.