Herb to Know: Sesame

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Photo by Barbara Pleasant
Sesame is a familiar flavor in Chinese dishes.

Genus:Sesamum indicum

• Hardy to zones 9-11

Many people recognize soy sauce as a main seasoning in their favorite Chinese dishes, but cooks who know their way around a wok also recognize the wafting scent of sesame. Hazelnut-brown and thick as syrup, only a teaspoon of dark sesame oil brings savory flavor and a complex nutty aroma to Asian sauces, dressings and stir-fries.

Sesame seeds are 50 to 60 percent oil, but sesame oil does not exhibit its robust flavor unless the seeds are toasted before the oil is extracted. Cold-pressed oil, made from raw seeds, often is added to margarine and other processed foods, but dark sesame oil — simply called fragrant oil by Chinese cooks — delivers the concentrated flavor of toasted sesame seeds in liquid form. Tahini, a paste made by grinding toasted sesame seeds, brings a touch of sesame flavor to hummus and many other Middle Eastern dishes.

One of the most ancient oilseed crops, sesame (Sesamum indicum) is thought to have originated in the Spice Islands, which is now part of Indonesia. Egyptian tomb paintings show bakers sprinkling sesame seeds onto bread 4,000 years ago, but the popularity of sesame seed hamburger buns is credited with bringing sesame into North American diets. Most commercial bakeries use hulled sesame seeds, but the seeds purchased from grocery or health-food stores still have their hulls, which increase their shelf life and nutritional value. Sesame seeds are rich in protein, B vitamins and zinc, but because they must be broken to release those nutrients, sesame paste or sesame oil often are more body-friendly than seeds, which easily can be swallowed whole.

A tropical annual, sesame needs warm soil and a long growing season. The plants produce a single upright stalk, 2 to 6 feet tall, which becomes studded with tubular pink flowers. Rows of seeds then ripen within fragile capsules, and a single capsule often contains more than 100 seeds. Sesame seeds are harvested by hand easily by drying the stalks in the sun for a few days and then beating them on sheets spread out on the ground.

The seeds then can be winnowed clean on a moderately windy day. Simply put a large container on the ground and pour your seeds slowly from a bowl down into your container, letting the wind clean the seeds. In one or two pours, all debris and dust should be gone.

You can plant the natural raw sesame seeds you purchase at a health-food store. Some cooks think black sesame seeds have a richer, spicier flavor than the more common white version. Regardless of the color, take the time to lightly toast sesame seeds before adding them to any dish. You can toast them in a dry nonstick pan over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or bake them in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so. Promptly remove the hot seeds from the pan to prevent overcooking.

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