Seeds fit for a queen

Sweets for your Purim sweethearts.

sesame cookies 521 (photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/ MCT)
sesame cookies 521
(photo credit: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/ MCT)
When Esther became the queen of Persia, it is said that she decided to eat seeds and nuts because the food in King Ahasuerus’s palace was not kosher. In many households a tradition evolved to include seeds in the Purim menu to honor Queen Esther’s diet.
Seeds can be quite wholesome, as they serve as nourishment for new plants. Extensive use of seeds has long been part of the culinary culture of the region where the king reigned – “from India to Ethiopia.” Some seeds are used mainly as flavorings. Of course, you can’t live on spice seeds like cumin, coriander or mustard. Others, like sunflower and pumpkin seeds, are eaten as snacks. Still others, like sesame, fenugreek and hemp seeds, are dual-purpose, used to add flavor to foods and made into dishes.
Purim is a reminder that seeds can be very useful on the menu. The holiday is a good occasion to enhance menus with a variety of seeds.
If you bake bread, try sprinkling it with nigella seeds. My mother-in-law used them to add good flavor to her saluf, a Yemenite pita, in her home in Givatayim; they season Persian and Indian flatbreads too. Jennifer Felicia Abadi, author of A Fistful of Lentils, a book on Syrian- Jewish cooking, uses four kinds of seeds in her ka’ik, or ring-shaped pretzels – anise, coriander, cumin and sesame. If you’ve had cardamom seeds in curries, remember that they go well with sweet flavors too. Persians, Afghans and Indians use cardamom in puddings and candies, Yemenites include it in coffee spice and Scandinavians use it to spice their sweet breads.
Flax seeds and hemp seeds also add good flavor and nutrients to breads.
If you thought of caraway seeds only as a flavoring for rye bread, try sprinkling them on noodles tossed with sauteed cabbage. Poppy seeds and sugar also make a delicious topping for buttered noodles. Fresh dill is popular in chicken soup but dill seeds also give soups a savory flavor. Basil leaves make great pesto but basil seeds are useful too; Persians use them in a chilled dessert drink made of rosewater sherbet and thin rice noodles. In India lightly sweetened fennel seeds are served after meals as a breath freshener.
Some seeds normally used as spices can also be the basis for fillings, sauces and dips. Poppy seeds, used during most of the year mainly as a light sprinkling on halla, gain importance on Purim as the most traditional filling for hamentashen.
Fenugreek seeds are a common component of curry powder and are also made into a Yemenite appetizer dip, hilbe. It’s not surprising that hilbe has a reputation for being nourishing.
“Though we most commonly think of fenugreek as a spice, it is actually a legume,” wrote authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in Mangoes and Curry Leaves. They use fenugreek seeds as a Sri Lankan dal, or legume sauce, by cooking them with shallots, curry leaves, a cinnamon stick, hot peppers, cardamom and turmeric. This fenugreek sauce is enriched with coconut milk and flavored with lime juice, then served with vermicelli-like steamed pasta.
Snack seeds like pumpkin and sunflower are useful not only as additions to breads and toppings for rice and salads. They can be made into spreads, sauces and sweets as well. Sunflowerseed butter and hemp-seed butter, made by grinding the seeds to a paste, are used as substitutes for peanut butter. Sunflower seed halva is popular in Russia and Eastern Europe.
In this dual-role category of seeds, the best known are sesame seeds. They are used in spice blends like za’atar, embellish savory and sweet pastries and breads and, of course, are made into tehina and halva. Abadi uses sesame seeds two ways in her dish of egg noodles with lentils.
The mixture of pasta and lentils is enriched with onions browned in olive oil, as well as butter, tehina and a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
Alice Medrich, author of Pure Dessert, makes sesame coin cookies with tehina in the dough and white or black sesame seeds on the crust.
What we call pine nuts are actually the edible seeds of pines. In Lebanon they are ground with olive oil and lemon juice to make dressings that are good with fish and vegetables. Gracia Grego, author of Lebanese Cooking (in Hebrew), uses fried pine nuts as a filling for a special-occasion baked fish entree, which is served coated with tehina sauce and sprinkled with fried almonds and chopped parsley. Suzanne Elmaleh, the Lebanese-born Jerusalemite who taught me how to make ma’amoul, preferred pine-nut filling for these rich, sweet Middle Eastern pastries.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.
Toasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds add a pleasing texture and good flavor to this colorful salad of root vegetables. If you like, substitute lightly toasted pine nuts, pecans or slivered almonds for the seeds. You can use raw carrots but I like to cook them lightly to bring out their sweetness.
Makes 4 servings.
2 large beets 2 large carrots, cut in thin strips 2 medium cucumbers, cut in thin strips 4 cups leaf lettuce, cut in wide strips 1 to 2 Tbsp. white or red wine vinegar 2 to 3 Tbsp. sunflower oil or canola oil salt and freshly ground pepper 1 to 2 Tbsp. toasted shelled sunflower seeds 1 to 2 Tbsp. toasted shelled pumpkin seeds or additional sunflower seeds
Rinse beets, taking care not to pierce their skins. Put in a pan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat 40 to 50 minutes or until tender. Let cool. Run beets under cold water and slip off the skins. Halve beets, place cut side down and slice them.
Meanwhile, put carrot strips in a saucepan of boiling water to cover and cook over medium heat for 3 minutes or until barely tender but still crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and let cool.
Peel cucumbers, quarter lengthwise and slice. Combine lettuce strips, cucumbers and carrots in a bowl. Toss to mix. Add vinegar, oil, salt and pepper and mix well. Serve topped with sliced beets and toasted seeds.
This recipe is from Pure Dessert, by Alice Medrich. These tender cookies with a giant sesame flavor were inspired by the taste of halva. Pure tehina turned out to be the best and purest source of flavor. If doubling the recipe, use 1 whole egg instead of 2 yolks.
Makes about 48 4-cm. cookies.
2⁄3 cup (85 gr.) all-purpose flour 1⁄4 tsp. baking soda
2⁄3 cup pure tehina 4 Tbsp. (55 gr.) unsalted butter, melted 1⁄2 cup sugar 1 large egg yolks 1⁄2 tsp. pure vanilla extract 1⁄2 tsp. salt 3 Tbsp. natural or black sesame seeds
Equipment: Baking sheets A 4-cm. round cookie cutter Whisk the flour and baking soda in a small bowl until thoroughly blended. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix the tehina, butter, sugar, egg yolk, vanilla and salt until smooth. Add the flour mixture and work with your hands until blended. The dough will be slightly crumbly, and you will have to push or squeeze it together.
Divide the dough in half, form it into 2 patties and wrap the patties in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 2 hours or, preferably, overnight.
Position the racks in the lower and upper thirds of the oven and preheat the oven to 165º. Line the baking sheets with parchment paper.
Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator and allow it to soften slightly. Roll it between two pieces of wax paper or plastic wrap to a thickness of 6 mm. If the dough is crumbly, just push it together. Sprinkle the dough with half of the sesame seeds and roll over them gently to secure them to the dough.
Cut as many rounds as possible, trying to minimize dough scraps, and transfer to the lined pans, spacing the cookies 2.5 cm. apart.
Repeat with the second dough patty. Press all of the scraps together, without overworking the dough, roll out, and cut additional cookies.
Bake until the edges of the cookies are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the sheets from back to front and top to bottom halfway through baking. Set the baking sheets on racks to cool completely.
The cookies will keep in an airtight container for at least 1 month.