Seasonal Pantry: Sesame seeds add earthy flavor
It was Revolution Bread that got me thinking about sesame seeds — more specifically, their sandwich-style whole wheat sourdough with a flurry of black sesame seeds on top.
The bread is always delicious, but for some reason I noticed the sesame seeds more than I typically do. They made my heirloom tomato sandwich soar.
Sesame seeds are an ingredient many of us take for granted. Need a teaspoon or so to finish a salad or strudel? If none are on hand, it is easy to assume leaving them out won’t make a big difference. But the assumption is wrong. They add an earthy savor that cannot be duplicated.
Because sesame seeds are high in oil, they can go rancid, especially if they sit in the back of a spice cabinet for – be honest – years. If this is the case with your sesame seeds, toss them in the compost, buy some in bulk from Andy’s or Oliver’s and keep them in the freezer. I always have a bag of white and a bag of black on hand.
These days, we tend to enjoy sesame seeds frequently in hummus, though it is not always understood that sesame seeds are a primary ingredient. True hummus — and not one of its contemporary versions — contains just chickpeas, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and tahini, which is simply hulled sesame seeds ground into a smooth paste. You can make a simple sauce of it in moments simply by adding fresh lemon juice and salt; it is delicious on grilled fish and certain vegetables, especially grilled eggplant.
Like all seeds, sesame seeds contain a great deal of fat, which is extracted to make sesame oil, a flavorful oil essential in many cuisines. Three and a half ounces of sesame seeds contain nearly 600 calories but that shouldn’t alarm you; a typical serving is a teaspoon or less; a teaspoon of sesame seeds contains about 20 calories. Sesame seeds come from a tall (up to 3 feet) annual plant, sesarmum. The majority of what is sold in the United States is grown in Latin America.
If you have been in Sonoma County long enough, you may remember a sweet little Japanese restaurant, Tengu, that took over the space occupied by Cotati’s A Chez Nous when it closed. Tengu’s sushi, sashimi, tempura and other traditional Japanese dishes were beautiful and delicious but, for my palate anyway, the most memorable dish was the coleslaw that began every meal. Cabbage was sliced as thin as a thread or nearly so and the sweet tangy creamy dressing, topped with toasted sesame seeds, was incredibly good. I have been experimenting ever since the restaurant closed, many years ago, to make something similar, and this dressing is the closest I’ve gotten. The two secret ingredients are Kewpie mayonnaise, which you can find in Asian markets, and freshly toasted sesame seeds.
Japanese-Style Sesame Dressing
Makes about 1 cup
3 tablespoons white sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon rice vinegar, plus more to taste
2 teaspoon soy sauce, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons sugar, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup Kewpie brand mayonnaise
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Put the sesame seeds into a suribachi and use a wooden mortar to crush and grind them, leaving about a quarter of the seeds whole. Add the vinegar and soy sauce, stir and agitate the bowl to remove any of the ground sesame seeds from the porcelain ridges. Tip into a small bowl.