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Published August 11, 2010, 12:00 AM

Halgrimson: Sesame has many uses

Sesame seeds are not just for sprinkling on the tops of various breads. And to understand that, it’s worth looking at the dynamic history of this common food.

By: Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, INFORUM

Sesame seeds are not just for sprinkling on the tops of various breads.

And to understand that, it’s worth looking at the dynamic history of this common food.

Sesame seeds are most likely the oldest condiment known and were probably the first crop grown for its edible oil as long ago as 2000 B.C.

The seeds were known in many Asian countries as “til,” the ancient Indian word for oil. The small oval-shaped seeds range in color from yellow to red, to brown, and black. Most of the seed available in this country is white with a shiny finish.

According to Alan Davidson, author of “The Oxford Companion to Food,” the pods of ancient seeds suddenly split open letting the seeds scatter. He says, “This may account for the command ‘Open Sesame’ in the tale of Ali Baba and the Fourth Thieves.”

The Babylonians made sesame cakes, wine and brandy and used the oil for cooking and toiletries. The oil was used by ancient Egyptians as a medicine. In the late 17th century, the seeds came to America with African slaves.

Sesame seeds are among the most nutritious seeds, with 25 percent protein and two amino acids lacking in many other sources of vegetable protein.

One of most popular sesame seed products is Tahini, which is made from ground, hulled sesame seeds that have been roasted. It is much like peanut butter but with a more exotic flavor. It can be used in sandwich spreads, dips, salad dressings and sauces.

Tahini is a staple of Middle Eastern cooking. While tahini is available ready-made at specialty food markets, it is easily made at home. Here is a recipe for tahini paste, and a few recipes to incorporate it into your cooking:

Tahini paste

2 1/2 cups sesame seeds

3/4 cup good olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour seeds onto

a jelly-roll pan and toast for

5-10 minutes, turning seeds often with a metal spatula. DO NOT allow seeds to brown. Cool for 20 minutes.

Pour sesame seeds into food processor, add oil and whiz for 2 minutes. Check for consistency. The paste should be thick yet pourable. Add more oil and blend until desired consistency is reached, Store tahini in refrigerator in a tightly closed container. It will keep for up to 3 months. Makes 2 cups.

Tahini sauce

1/2 cup tahini

3 gloves garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons good olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Using a food processor or mortar and pestle, combine garlic and tahini. Add salt. Remove from food processor and add olive oil and lemon juice. If too thick, add a teaspoon of warm water until desired consistency. Mix in parsley. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Cauliflower with tahini

4 cups fresh cauliflower florets

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 cup tahini

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Steam cauliflower for 10-15 minutes until tender. Check often so it does not become mushy. When tender, drain in colander. Set aside.

Mix garlic, cumin, lemon juice, cayenne and tahini in medium bowl. Add salt and pepper. Add a tablespoon of water until desired consistency. It should be smooth and creamy.

Add cauliflower to sauce and stir until combined. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate.

Spinach with tahini

1 garlic clove, chopped

3 tablespoons well-stirred tahini

1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup water

15 (24 cups) ounces loosely packed baby spinach

2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds

In a food processor, whiz together garlic, tahini, lemon juice, salt, and 1/4 cup water until smooth.

Bring remaining ½ cup water to a simmer in a 12-inch frying pan over moderately high heat.

Add spinach in handfuls, tossing with a wooden spatula and cook until wilted.

Drain spinach in a large colander set over a bowl, pressing to extract any excess liquid.

Discard liquid (or save it for stock) and wipe bowl dry. Stir together spinach and tahini mixture in bowl. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

Note: Dandelion greens or Swiss chard may be used in place of spinach.

Sources: “The Food Lover’s Companion,” by Sharon Tyler Herbst; http://mideastfood.about.com; www.epicurious.com/recipes; www.agricom.net/agricom/sesame.htm

Readers can reach Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson at ahalgrimson@forumcomm.com