The sunflower is easy to grow and very nutritious to eat. The delicious heart of the seed, or kernel, is what we usually consume as snacks or as heart-healthy oil for frying. There are several types of sunflowers, ranging from the ten-foot-tall Russian Mammoth, which I grow, to a dwarf variety that can be only a foot tall. Sunflowers are an elegant backdrop to any garden attracting birds. Botanically, Helianthus annuus, the seed types are usually classified by their colour, either all black to dark grey or striped. Black seeds are pressed for cooking oil.
The sunflower is another food discovered in the Western Hemisphere. Sunflower was a common crop among Amerindian tribes throughout North and South America and may have been domesticated as a food source around 3,000 BC, even before corn. The Amerindians crushed the seeds into flour for cakes or bread and mixed the meal with other vegetables such as beans, squash and corn. They also used the flowers, roots and stems including, as a dye. Spanish explorers found the tall flower, which always faced the sun, near the Aztec’s holy places. Aztec priests said the sunflower was a sacred plant.
From Spain, sunflowers spread throughout Europe as a unique, tall, brilliant flower until it reached Russia. There, it was adapted and grown mostly for its high oil content. During the mid 1800s Russia began commercial manufacturing of sunflower oil. The Russian Orthodox Church increased its popularity by forbidding eating most oil foods during Lent. However, sunflower was not on the prohibited list. Russia remains the world’s largest producer
Sunflowers are an annual, which means they must be replanted every year. They are easy to grow as they can adapt to most soil and climate conditions. Obviously, they like sunny areas and will grow in most soil, with minimal attention. Seeds have been hard to locate, but once you have grown them, then you have a ready supply. They will grow year round in Trinidad as long as they are in a well-drained area. Water regularly and the seeds should sprout within two weeks. Keep weeds or other flowers from shading the sprouts and in a few months, you should have mighty yellow-fringed flowers. They can grow so tall because they have an excellent surface root system, with a long central tap root. At a foot tall, give each just a pinch of a phosphorus-rich fertiliser. It is entertaining to monitor how the sunflower heads turn to follow the sun across the horizon. For spectacular results, occasionally sprinkle the base of the flowers with a fertiliser that contains trace nutrients. Agri-shops sell small, inexpensive packets of these nutrients that can be mixed and applied with the water.
Once you have grown the flowers, you will have thousands of “raw” seeds, only good for the birds. Cut the blooms off with about six inches of stem and hang them in a cool, dry place for three weeks. To roast your own, put seeds in a plastic pail and cover with water. Add a half-cup of salt, if that’s how you like your snacks. Soak overnight. Drain water and let dry on newspaper in the sun or pat dry. Spread evenly so they do not overlap on a coo kie sheet or baking pan. Bake at 300°F for half an hour or slightly longer until they are beginning to brown. Stir occasionally. Once cooled, sample the taste and store in an air-tight container.
If you are searching for sunflower seeds in a supermarket, look for bird food as parrots love the busy work of cracking the hull. We humans need a place to neatly expel or spit the husk when we indulge. If you cannot find sunflower kernels ready to eat, put a handful of seeds into the bowl of an electric mixer or blender, pulsing the mixer on and off a few times for a few seconds several times. The shells will separate and, hopefully, not too many seeds are crushed. Then empty the blender/mixer into cold water to separate them from the shells. The shells will float and can be skimmed off with a slotted spoon. Then roast the kernels that have sunk.
Sunflower seeds are more commonly eaten as a healthy snack than as part of a meal. They can also be used as garnishes or ingredients in various recipes.
Try these recipes
The most difficult part is shelling the sunflower seeds
Ingredients: Four cups fresh, chopped basil leaves (or four tablespoons dry), one cup shelled, raw
sunflower seeds, half-cup oil—preferably olive,
canola or sunflower—one cup Parmesan cheese, two tablespoons sweet butter—soft, two cloves garlic mashed, juice of half a lemon, salt and black pepper to taste (this recipe basically replaces pine nuts, which are difficult to locate in Trinidad.)
Method: Place all ingredients except lemon into a blender and puree. Keep scraping the sides of the blender so all get pulverised. Cook a pound of your favourite pasta, but strain it before it gets soft, saving the starchy pasta water. Combine half-cup pasta water with one cup of the sunflower seed pesto. You may change proportions depending on your taste and pesto’s strength. Once pesto is thinned, toss with pasta, squeeze lemon over pasta and toss again.
Sealed in the fridge, this pesto should keep up
to two weeks.
PUMPKIN WITH SUNFLOWER SEEDS
Ingredients: One cup sunflower seeds, one piece of pumpkin or squash of three to four pounds, two tablespoons oil, six cloves of garlic sliced thin, salt and bitter pepper to your taste.
Method: Heat oil in a large skillet and cook garlic till
it just begins to turn golden. Add squash slices and turn to coat evenly. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Reduce heat to simmer and cover. Cook for half an hour, stirring once or twice until squash gets soft.
Uncover and increase heat to medium and cook
for ten more minutes or until liquid evaporates.
Sprinkle with sunflower seeds and serve.
SUNFLOWER SEED CAKES
Ingredients: Three cups shelled sunflower seeds, three cups water, six tablespoons cornmeal, two tablespoons brown sugar, half-cup oil.
Method: Simmer the seeds in water covered for an hour. Drain and grind seeds to a paste with either a mortar and pestle or in a blender. Combine sugar and cornmeal and add to mashed sunflower seeds one tablespoon at
a time. When mixture is ready, pour into a greased baking dish at 350°F for
half an hour.
Ingredients: Two cups sunflower seed kernels,
six cups chicken broth, one bunch chives chopped small, two tablespoons chopped fresh dill or one
tablespoon dry, salt and bitter pepper to taste.
Method: Place sunflower kernels in a large skillet and add chicken broth and chives. Cook uncovered over low heat for about an hour. Stir in dill and
season with salt and pepper to taste.
Ingredients: One cup raw sunflower kernels, two
tablespoons oil—preferably canola—honey to sweeten, pinch of salt
Method: Put kernels in a blender and pulse about six minutes or until seeds turn to a powder. Drip in oil, one tablespoon at a time, and continue to blend until a smooth paste forms. Add honey and salt to taste.
DID YOU KNOW?
In Eastern Europe and the USSR where sunflower oil is plentiful, it is used commonly in the manufacture of soaps and detergents. Sunflower oil contains 93 per cent of the energy of US Number 2 diesel fuel, with an octane rating of 37. This oil has the potential as an alternative fuel source in diesel engines. Blends of sunflower oil and diesel fuel are expected to have greater potential than the burning of pure vegetable oil.