- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 20, 2005

I discovered the flavoring power of sesame seeds in an unlikely place — in Paris, at a casual macrobiotic restaurant called Auberge Inn. The food served was completely plain — steamed brown rice with vegetables. Our meals were appealing thanks to gomasio, a simple Japanese condiment of toasted black sesame seeds and salt that transformed the humble fare.

Gomasio is not the only type of seasoned sesame sprinkles. For the popular Middle Eastern condiment, za’atar, seeds are blended with an herb resembling thyme and combined with olive oil, then used for sprinkling on bread. According to Neelam Batra, author of “1000 Indian Recipes” (Wiley), South Indians have their own savory sesame blend, too.

To make it, sauteed sesame seeds are combined with fenugreek seeds, hot red pepper flakes and asafetida, and used as a last-minute garnish for cooked vegetables, meats and rice.

Sesame seeds are thought to have originated in Africa, and they have traveled around the world and been prized in the Mideast and in China since ancient times. You’ll find them sprinkled on Japanese sushi, in Moroccan stews, and in the spicy Mexican mole poblano sauce made with chilies and chocolate.

Look around the supermarket, and you’ll see sesame seeds on a variety of breads. In Jerusalem, I even enjoyed sesame-coated tofu burgers, which demonstrated how good the seeds are in crunchy coatings.

Sesame seeds make super sweets, as well, from sesame brittle to crunchy Middle Eastern sesame pistachio barazi cookies to the benne seed cookies of the American South. The name originated with the African slaves, who brought the seeds to America.

Halvah made of sesame seeds is a Middle Eastern sweet also found in Jewish delis in pistachio, vanilla and chocolate flavors.

You can buy white-hulled sesame seeds, the most common type, or unhulled beige seeds. In Asian markets you’ll find black sesame seeds, which are used in some Chinese sweets and east Asian dishes.

High in calcium, sesame seeds are also a good source of copper, magnesium, iron, zinc, vitamin B6 and fiber. The easiest way to use them is to simply toast them in a skillet for a few minutes and sprinkle them over salads, cooked rice or steamed vegetables. In some markets you can buy the seeds already toasted, ready to munch as a snack.

Here’s how to toast sesame seeds: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put sesame seeds on a small baking sheet and toast, shaking pan occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer immediately to a plate.

Or, to toast a few tablespoons of seeds on top of the stove, put seeds in a small, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Toast them, shaking the pan often, about 4 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer immediately to a plate.

Lovers of Chinese, Japanese and Korean food are familiar with aromatic, amber sesame oil, which is pressed from toasted sesame seeds and added to dishes as a last-minute seasoning. Clear sesame oil is made from untoasted seeds and is used as a cooking oil in south India.

Sesame seeds are also made into a sesame paste that resembles peanut butter in consistency. In China, the paste is made from toasted sesame seeds, which give it a dark color and rich aroma resembling that of Asian sesame oil.

Far more familiar in the United States is the cream-colored Middle Eastern sesame paste called tahini, which many of us first encounter as a pale sauce drizzled over falafel.

Tahini has many more uses. In the Mideast, this creamy sesame sauce is considered indispensable as a savory sesame dip for bread, as a sauce for fish and vegetables, and as part of spreads, notably hummus (chickpea spread) and baba ghannouj (eggplant dip).

Sesame paste is a convenient pantry item, ready to be made into a sauce when you want it. For cooks in a hurry, tahini is one of the easiest sauces to make. You simply blend sesame paste with water, lemon juice, garlic and salt.

Korean carrots with zucchini

1 pound carrots, cut in thin matchsticks

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons soy sauce

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry

½ to 1 teaspoon chili oil or hot sauce, or to taste

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1½ to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound zucchini, cut in thin sticks

Salt

1 tablespoon finely chopped scallion

1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted (see preceding instructions)

Put carrots in a saucepan with water to cover, bring to a boil and cook 3 minutes.

Drain carrots. In a small bowl combine soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine or sherry, chili oil or hot sauce, and garlic. Mix well.

Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add zucchini and saute 2 minutes. Add carrots and sprinkle with salt. Toss briefly over heat until vegetables are just tender. Add sauce and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with scallion and toasted sesame seeds. Makes 4 servings as a side dish or 2 as a main course with rice.

Crab and linguine salad with sesame dressing

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1½ to 2 tablespoons rice vinegar

½ to 1 teaspoon chili oil or hot pepper sauce to taste

Salt

8 ounces fresh crabmeat

8 ounces dried linguine

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves

3 tablespoons chopped scallion

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, optional

2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted (see preceding instructions)

To make dressing, combine sesame oil, 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, vinegar, ½ teaspoon chili oil or hot pepper sauce to taste, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl, and whisk until blended.

Pick through crabmeat and discard any pieces of shell or cartilage. Reserve a few large pieces crabmeat for garnish. Add 1 tablespoon dressing to remaining crabmeat and let stand about 15 minutes.

Cook linguine in a large pot of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat, separating strands occasionally with a fork, for 8 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well.

Transfer linguine to a large bowl. Add remaining dressing, parsley, scallion and cilantro, if desired, and toss. Add crab mixture and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more vegetable oil, chili oil and salt, if needed. Just before serving, add sesame seeds and toss. Garnish with reserved crabmeat. Makes 2 to 3 main-course servings or 4 to 5 as first-course servings.

Classic hummus

½ pound dried chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or 2 15-ounce cans, drained

2 large garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup tahini (sesame paste), stirred to blend before being measured

1/3 cup strained fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

½ cup chickpea cooking liquid or water

Salt

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Aleppo pepper, paprika or cayenne pepper, if desired

If using dried chickpeas, pick over, discarding any pebbles and broken or discolored peas. Rinse well. If you like, soak chickpeas 8 hours or overnight in water to cover generously; this will cut the cooking time slightly and help improve the texture if the peas are old. Drain soaked chickpeas and rinse.

Put chickpeas in a large saucepan and add about 5 cups water. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 1½ hours or until very tender. Drain well, reserving cooking liquid. Cool slightly.

Chop chickpeas in food processor. Add garlic, tahini, lemon juice, cumin, if desired, and 1/4 cup chickpea cooking liquid (or water, if using canned), and puree until blended.

Transfer to a bowl. Gradually stir in more chickpea cooking liquid or water until puree is the consistency of a smooth spread. Season to taste with salt. Refrigerate in a covered container until ready to serve.

To serve, spoon hummus onto a serving plate and spread it so edges are thicker than center. Drizzle center with oil and sprinkle lightly with Aleppo pepper, paprika or cayenne, if desired. Makes about 8 servings.

Broiled vegetable sandwich with tomato basil tahini

1 small eggplant, about ½ pound, sliced 3/8-inch thick

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, or a little oil spray

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 zucchini, sliced lengthwise about 3/8-inch thick

1 large onion, peeled and cut in rounds 1/4- to 3/8-inch thick

1 red or green bell pepper, core removed, quartered lengthwise

4 fresh pita breads

½ cup tomato basil tahini (recipe follows)

4 teaspoons capers, drained

12 Mediterranean olives, black or green, pitted and halved

Preheat broiler. Arrange eggplant in 1 layer on a foil-lined baking sheet or broiler pan.

Brush or spray lightly with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Broil about 8 minutes. Turn over and broil about 7 minutes or until tender. Transfer to a plate. Lightly oil baking sheet and add zucchini slices.

Brush or spray them lightly with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and broil them 3 or 4 minutes per side or until crisp-tender. Transfer to a plate.

Brush onion slices with oil and add to pan. Broil about 5 minutes per side or until cooked to your taste.

Remove onion with slotted spoon. Add bell pepper, skin side facing heat source, and grill about 5 minutes or until lightly charred but still crunchy.

Cut a small piece off one end of each pita bread to form a pocket you can fill, or cut each pita bread in two. Cut vegetables in pieces that fit in the pita and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

Fill pita with slices of broiled vegetables, spoon a little tahini into each and add capers and olives. Serve more of the sauce separately. Makes 4 servings.

TOMATO BASIL TAHINI:

½ cup tahini

1/4 cup tomato juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 large garlic cloves, minced

Salt, pepper, and cayenne or hot sauce

3/4 cup finely diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons thin strips fresh basil

In a medium bowl, stir tahini to blend in its oil. Stir in 1/4 cup water, tomato juice, lemon juice, garlic cloves, salt, pepper, and cayenne or hot sauce to taste.

Adjust consistency with water or lemon juice so tahini forms a thick sauce. A short time before serving, stir in tomatoes and basil. Makes about 1 cup.

Mideast sesame sundae with halvah and fresh figs

4 to 6 ounces sesame halvah, plain or pistachio

3 or 4 fresh figs, quartered

1 orange, sectioned

1 banana, sliced

3/4 cup heavy cream or whipping cream, chilled, optional

1 pint vanilla ice cream

½ cup carob, date or chocolate syrup

2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

Put halvah in a bowl and use a spoon to divide it into small chunks of about ½ to 1 teaspoon each; don’t worry if it crumbles.

Mix figs, orange sections and banana slices in another bowl.

Whip cream in a chilled bowl to soft peaks; refrigerate until ready to serve.

At serving time, scoop ice cream into 4 dessert dishes or sundae glasses.

Spoon fruit and halvah around edges of dish and pour a little syrup over ice cream. Top ice cream with a dollop of whipped cream, drizzle lightly with more syrup, and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Serve immediately, with more syrup and whipped cream on the side.

Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is the author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).


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