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Sunflower seeds, you're getting a promotion. No more will you be just the last stop at the salad bar, or the cheap filler in the spaces between pecans in our granola. You've always been a reliable source of protein and crunch, but truthfully, nonessential. An accent.
But there's this whole other thing you can do that nobody told us about! It turns out you're just like other nuts and seeds that we can soak, then blend into rich, magical dairy-free milks and creams. You've got this softer, gentler side that's surprisingly easy to lure out, sunflower seeds. I dig it. And we can cook you just like rice, too? What?
I'd heard rumors for years about the genius of nuts being treated like beans or grains and served as the base of a meal, not the garnish—the (apparently) top-secret pressure-cooked almonds served like beans at Torrisi, Blackberry Farm's peanuts boiled and seasoned baked bean-style, with an aggressive cupful of honey.
But none were ever so simple as this sunflower seed risotto technique from Sarah Britton at My New Roots. You won't need a pressure cooker, or to simmer or bake anything for hours. Sunflower seeds' teeny size comes in handy here, as does their economy.
This is all you have to do, and it will set you back something like $6: Soak 2 cups of the seeds overnight, blend half with fresh water the next day to make a thick cream, simmer the other half with sautéed onions and garlic for 20 minutes, then combine the two. "The best things most often come out of the seemingly strange," Britton writes.
The cream floats and clings to all the little seeds, which are softened but still al dente, very much like properly-cooked grains of rice. The taste is savory and earthy and a little burly, and makes much more sense than you'd expect.
As inspiring as this rebirth is, the seedy risotto at this stage is also a downtrodden shade of beige. Which is where Britton adds another genius layer—she piles on a lot of colorful vegetables, whatever's at the market that excites her.
In the spring, she made it with young carrots and white asparagus; I pulled a surprisingly pastel assortment from the winter NYC Greenmarket: not-so-young carrots, Romanesco broccoli, and radishes, plus frozen peas, because frozen peas are always welcome.
But instead of trying to evenly chop, cook, and time the vegetables with the risotto, Britton simply blanches them in big chunks in succession in a single pot before piling them on top.
This jumble of freshness brightens the comforting, nutty slush in the bottom of the bowl—in shape, color, flavor, texture, and spirit. Then, to marry the two and shine them up even more, Britton swoops in with another layer of olive oil, crunchy salt, pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.
The first time I tried to recreate the beautiful scene from My New Roots from what she called both "Inspirational" and "Celebration" risotto, all I had was an aging sack of carrots and those trusty peas, and it looked like a meal for a preschooler. (I had better luck the second time, thanks to a little help from my friends.)
No matter how inspirational (or not) your scene is, this risotto will be a warming supper, a filling make-ahead lunch, a dinner party conversation starter. Way to go, sunflower seeds. I always knew I liked you.
- 2 1/2 cups shelled, raw, unsalted sunflower seeds
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil or ghee
- 2 medium onions, finely diced
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- pinches sea salt
- 2 to 3 cups water (or good-tasting vegetable broth)
Vegetables and toppings
- Assorted seasonal vegetables, like carrots, radishes, Romanesco broccoli, plus frozen green peas (or fresh, in season)
- Handful of watercress per person (stirred in before serving)
- Good quality olive oil
- Lemon wedges
- Flaky sea salt
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52's Associate Editor Ali Slagle for this one!