They’re everywhere. We eat them without even knowing what they are. We erroneously call them legumes, or nuts or grains, when in actual fact they are simply and wonderfully… just seeds. Seeds are the symbol of growth. Such an optimistic food! Plus they are nutritious and rich in healthy substances.
They also offer an immense range of alternatives to wheat and other grains. Why, you ask? Let me explain.
Many of my family members––for health or conscious choice––have embraced a gluten-free diet. In order to be up to speed with what they can or cannot eat (in the hope to soon cook meals for them again) I did a little digging to research which grains could be valid alternatives to wheat. One word that kept popping up in my investigation was ‘seeds.’ What did seeds have to do with wheat and gluten? Little did I know, seeds are everything.
By definition, a seed is a “The unit of reproduction of a flowering plant, capable of developing into another such plant.” What I came to understand in this research process was that many of the foods we categorize as grains, legumes, nuts and vegetables, are actually seeds.
All grains are seeds, but not all seeds are grains…
For example, there are the seeds of grassy plants that develop gluten (a mixture of proteins found in only certain grains); there are seeds of the pseudocereals, i.e. plants that grow from the seeds of non-grassy crops; there are seeds we normally refer to as nuts; seeds we call legumes; seeds we consider vegetables, and seeds that are just seeds per se. Let’s take a look.
Grains (cereals) are the small edible fruits of the plant, usually hard on the outside and harvested from grassy crops. Wheat, barley, oats*, rye and spelt (farro) are seeds of plants that belong to this group. These all contain gluten.
*There are contrasting positions on oats: on the one hand pure oats are considered gluten-free and safe for most people with gluten sensitivity. However, oats are often contaminated with gluten because they grow and/or are processed in contact with wheat, barley or rye.
Fortunately there is a universe of non-glutinous seeds to choose from instead. Here are a few.
Once the sacred food of the Aztecs, amaranth is part of the pseudocereals classification. Toasting this tiny grain before cooking brings out its nutty flavor. Perfect for a delicious gluten-free grain bowl or creamy hot breakfast cereal in place of oatmeal.
Don’t let the name fool you, buckwheat is a gluten-free member of the rhubarb family! It has an earthy, nutty, slightly bitter taste. Experiment with using the toasted version called “kasha” as you would rice. Buckwheat flour makes delicious gluten-free pasta, crepes and pancakes.
Maize is also a cereal grain in seed form, but it grows in tall, leafy stalks that produce flowers (what we call “ears”) sheathed in a thick green husk. The seeds of the plant are the edible soft, plump kernels. Dried pulverized kernels give us cornmeal, polenta and grits. Polenta is cooked yellow cornmeal. It can either be served as a creamy smooth starchy starter, or left to set, sliced and served as crostini. In Veneto, local seafood is often served with cooled, firmed up, sliced and grilled polenta bianca (grits) made from white corn.
This is a tasty and versatile nutrient-dense seed that is definitely worth getting familiar with, even though many know it simply as birdseed. Millet is an ancient grain, originally hailing from Africa and northern China, and it remains a staple in the diets of about a third of the world’s population. Cooked millet has a mild corn flavor, fluffy texture and is naturally gluten-free.
Technically a grass, quinoa is related to –– wait for it… spinach! Native to South America, quinoa comes in several color varieties. Always rinse quinoa before cooking to remove the saponins, natural bitter “soapy” coating. Cook it like rice.
This staple in many world cuisines also grows from a grassy plant and is the seed of a cereal. All rice is naturally gluten-free. This includes brown rice, white rice (and its many varieties) and wild rice. Even Asian or sticky rice, also called “glutinous rice,” is totally gluten-free, despite its name. In this case, the ‘glutinous’ term refers to the sticky nature of the rice and not the gluten protein found in wheat, barley, oats and rye. Versatile rice leftovers can go in many directions. Think arancini, supplì, pomodori al riso… you can learn to make all these in our interactive online cooking classes!
Unlike other grains, sorghum contains the same powerful antioxidants found in blueberries. It has an appealing chewy texture and a nutty flavor. Works well as a substitute for couscous.
Largely grown in Ethiopia, India, and Australia, teff is used similarly to millet and quinoa. This is a tiny grain that packs a big, sweet flavor. It’s traditionally used as flour, but can also be cooked whole and used as a side dish. Plus, the tiny size means it cooks much faster than other grains and is a nice hot cereal alternative to oatmeal.
Legumes are also seeds! Most legumes come in self-opening pods—which may or may not grow underground, depending on the species. They are a great replacement for meat as a source of vegetarian protein. When used in their dried form, the seeds are also called pulse.
Beans… Italians love them. They’re cheap, nutritious, easy to make, and –– most importantly –– delicious! Dried beans like most dried legumes (with the exception of lentils), require soaking in water, a step that rehydrates them for quicker, more even cooking. Sort through the beans and then rinse them well. Depending on how much time you have, choose one of the following methods:
- Slow soak. In a stockpot, cover 500 g (1 lb) dried beans with 10 cups of water. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Change the water often.
- Quick soak. In a stockpot, bring 500 g (1 lb) dried beans and 10 cups of water to a boil. Cover and set aside and let beans soak for 1-4 hours at room temperature.
- No soak. This can require a longer cooking time, and pesky gas-forming carbohydrates may be more present. Be sure to rinse the beans well before cooking.
Sometimes known as chickling pea, cicerchia are popular in central Italy. The beans are the seeds of an ancient legume which predates grain-based agriculture. Cicerchia has experienced a resurgence of popularity over the past 15 years thanks to the Slow Food movement. Sweet like peas, but buttery and grainy like beans. Delightful in hearty soups.
Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are the seeds of yet another legume. While they have become more popular recently, chickpeas have been grown in Middle Eastern countries for thousands of years. Their nutty taste and grainy texture pairs well with several other foods and ingredients. Popular around the world for their starring roles in hummus, falafel and grain bowls, in Italy we eat ceci in soup, with pasta, and with cod fish on Fridays. When chickpeas are dried and powdered into flour, Italians mix it with water and olive oil to make cecina aka farinata, a sensational gluten-free savory flatbread/pancake. If in Sicily you’ve ever enjoyed fried panelle, you’ll know what I mean: a true delight.
Part of the legume family, carob is a purplish-brown pod that grows on the Mediterranean ceratonia siliqua, or carob tree. Inside the leathery pods, which vaguely resemble overripe, shriveled bananas, is a row of huge seeds surrounded by lots of sticky pulp. When ground to a fine flour, this sweet and nutty treat not only tastes like chocolate, but also has some impressive health benefits.
Also known as broad beans, fava beans are one of the oldest domesticated legumes. They have a mild, creamy flavor that exalts many spring dishes like Roman vignarola, fave e cicoria from Puglia, and Sicilian maccu. Fresh from the pod, the shelled fava beans are bright green and crunchy––the perfect companions to salty pecorino romano. They have a short season though, so eat them while you can!
Lentils have been referenced as far back as the Bible. These seeds often enrich soups, curry, dahl and are incredibly nutritional. Italians eat them in the colder months in soups, or with pasta and rice; and especially on New Year’s for good luck!
I remember as a child always stopping to buy lupini and olives sold at makeshift stands by the side of the road. The sellers fished them out of their storing brine with a slotted spoon and filled brown paper cones that I slowly pick at. The cone became a soggy mess after a bit, but it somehow added flavor to that odd afternoon snack. The method for eating the slippery yellow coin-shaped seeds is half the fun: make a small tear in the skin with your front teeth and then “pop” the seed directly into your mouth, holding on to the skin. Once a childhood snack, now it’s my favorite aperitivo nibble. I also love lupini in my vodka Martini instead of olives.
Peanuts grow underground, in a pod like peas and lentils. This means that they are not classified as nuts, but rather as legumes! This is reflected in the ‘pea’ portion of its name. I know, mind blown here too. Peanuts are quite versatile and can be seasoned in many different ways, used as ingredients in many Asian recipes, or even just left in their shells to be eaten plain. And who didn’t grow up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?
The field pea is one of the first crops domesticated by humans. Fresh or frozen sweet peas are commonly a side dish, eaten with pasta or rice. Split peas are whole peas whose hard outer coating is removed and then broken into the two parts that naturally separate in the seed’s core. This makes them cook more quickly. Dry whole or split peas and are excellent in soups. Remember, though: whole dry peas require soaking prior to cooking whereas split peas do not.
Also known as soya beans, these belong to a species of legumes native to East Asia and now grown worldwide. Gluten-free food products from soy include vegetable protein, soy vegetable oil, soy milk and tofu. Regular soy sauce however, is not gluten-free. Wheat is a primary ingredient in soy sauce, which surprises many people who are new to the gluten-free diet.
You can also eat green beans, flat hilda beans and snow peas in their soft edible pods: they’re all seeds, too!
Tiny yet mighty, nuts deliver a protein, fiber, fat and nutrient punch with every bite. Nuts are actually the seeds of certain plants. Most are the seeds of trees. Many grow inside leathery fruits, with the nut corresponding to the pit. Others, such as hazelnuts and chestnuts are classified as true botanical nuts (hard, dry fruits that don’t open to release a separate seed). Here are some of the most common.
Almonds are drupe seeds: a soft fruit with a hard inner shell (Think peach pits and olives). They are the seeds of the almond tree, which is native to the Middle East and South Asia and is famous for its gorgeous blossoms.
As the name suggests, these nuts grow in the Brazilian rainforest on large trees. The outer shells look like boat hulls and are quite hard to crack open.
Like almonds, cashews are drupe seeds that poke out of red, yellow, or green “cashew apples” native to South America. Not many people are aware that this favorite trail mix staple is a seed that’s naturally protected by a toxin-coated caustic liquid that actually burns exposed skin. The outer shell is always roasted to neutralize the acid.
Castagne play a huge role in Italian cuisine. Boiled or fire-roasted; puréed into spreads; crumbled into soups; added to roasts and made into candy (marron glacé), but also dried and pulverized into flour. Unlike other seeds, they are rich in carbohydrates instead of oils.
Like so many other seeds, I never thought to classify coconut among them. This delicacy is native to tropical locations, such as Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The entire coconut has many uses: the inside “meat” can be eaten raw or cooked, pulverized into flour, made into flakes or crumbled, pressed to obtain milk. The water contained in its interior is furthermore a healthy, anti-inflammatory beverage.
Nocciole grow on bushy trees, protected by a bud and a hard, shiny round shell. Hazelnuts are our friends in the kitchen: crumbled on desserts; made into famous chocolate spreads; churned into sensational gelato, or even powdered into a naturally gluten-free flour, which then can become gluten-free pasta or bread.
It takes a lot of patience to grow macadamia nuts, given that the plant won’t produce them for up to five years. Once harvested, they have to be shelled within 24 hours or mildew may set in. This laborious, time-sensitive procedure explains their elevated cost.
Yes, nutmeg is technically a spice, but botanically it’s in fact a seed. Many baking recipes throughout the world employ ground nutmeg. In Italy we add it to mashed potatoes, béchamel and other savory delights.
Pecan trees grow in the southern United States and parts of Mexico. It takes 7 to 9 years to fully mature; pecans are harvested by shaking the trunk and collecting the fallen nuts.
Approximately twenty pine tree species, including the Italian stone pines that line the Roman countryside and city avenues, produce delicious edible seeds. The seeds are harvested in a meticulous process: first you remove them from the pinecone, then crack open the woody shells they are contained in, revealing the teardrop-shaped seed sheathed in a veiled husk. All this work obviously accounts for the high selling price. Like most seeds, add them to salads, yogurt bowls, trail mixes, muffins, and vegetable dishes. They are a key ingredient in pesto sauce and in Sicilian caponata.
Pistachios love dry, arid climates. That’s why they thrive in Greece and in Italy, precisely at the foot of Mt Etna, in the town of Bronte, where they are said to be the best in the world. Pistachios are commonly used in spreads, made into gelato and granita, and as garnish in desserts like cannoli. What are further ways to employ this versatile seed? Savory recipes, sauces and pasta toppings.
Another member of the drupe seed clan, the green seed of the walnut tree is harvested purposely unripe on June 24th, on the Feast of St. John to make nocino liqueur. In the kitchen walnuts are used in many recipes. The Ligurians grind them into a paste for dressing pansoti pasta. I scatter them in salads and poultry stuffings, crumbled in desserts and enjoy the delicious gelato flavor.
Seeds per se
Culinary seeds come from a variety of sources: vegetables (such as pumpkins), flowers (such as sunflowers), or crops grown for a variety of uses (think flax or hemp). All have different flavors, textures, aromas, levels of nutrition and digestibility. Here is a shortlist of my favorite culinary seeds.
Chia has come a long way since it first sprouted out of quirky “pet” pots in TV commercials. They are easy to add to your favorite dishes: sprinkle into smoothies, salads, breakfast bowls, or yogurt. Furthermore, chia seeds also contain dietary fiber which will make you feel full for longer.
Sometimes called linseeds, these small, tan seeds have been named the world’s first cultivated superfood. These tiny seeds come from the flax plant, which can grow to be over two feet tall. Use flax seeds to make seasonings, flax flour, flax oil, paper, and textile linens. Adding flaxseeds to your diet is easy: bake into muffins, mix them in salads, yogurt, smoothies, cereal, and soups. Ground flaxseeds are also used as an egg substitute. To make a “flax egg” mix 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds with 3 tablespoons of warm water.
Hemp seeds are the seeds of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. They are from the same species as marijuana, but of a different variety. However, the edible hemp seeds contain only trace amounts of THC, which is the psychoactive compound in marijuana. They have a mild, nutty flavor. Eat them raw, cooked or roasted.
These small red “jewels” called arils are full of healthy antioxidants. Pomegranate seeds make a sweet and juicy low-calorie snack. Press them into a refreshing juice, or toss in salads, mixed into yogurt, or made into jelly.
Humans have been consuming poppy seeds for thousands of years. The tiny seeds are harvested from the poppy flower pod and the tiny seeds are excellent in many culinary dishes. It’s easy to add them to salad dressings, whole wheat pancakes, cakes, muffins, bread, bagels or vegetable dishes.
Available year-round, these oval and flat edible seeds scooped from pumpkins are a phenomenal health food. Enjoy them raw or toasted, sprinkled in soups or salads, or in breakfast hot/cold cereal, baked into muffins, mixed into smoothies, or added to homemade granola and energy bars.
Contained in small pods by the hundreds, these are the seeds of a beautiful flowering plant. The oilseed crop has been cultivated for the last 3,500 years. Sesame seeds are incredibly resilient and able to grow in places where many other plants cannot. Present as an ingredient in many dishes across the globe, like in bread doughs, soups, crackers, and as garnish in many seafood recipes. Tahini (ground sesame seed butter) is a main ingredient in hummus, and sesame oil will elevate any stir fry.
Sunflower seeds are harvested from large sunflower heads, which can measure over 12 inches (30.5 cm) in diameter. A single sunflower head may contain up to 2,000 seeds! There are two main types of sunflower crops. One type is grown for the edible seeds you eat in trail mix, multigrain bread or snack straight from the bag. The other type is grown for sunflower oil. I love using crushed sunflower seeds as a gluten-free alternative crunchy coating for fish or chicken steaks.