Condiments You’re Going to Love: Starting With Sesame Salt

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From time to time, people come to me with a question which goes like this: “I’m trying to eat a more natural, whole foods diet, but sometimes it gets a little dull.  What can I do to perk it up?”  You could perhaps interpret this entire blog as an attempt to answer that question, but today I want to focus on condiments, little bits of seasoning you apply at the table. And the condiment I highlight couldn’t be simpler: sesame seeds toasted with a little salt and then ground. We call it sesame salt or by its Japanese name, gomashio (go-mah-she-oh, goma= sesame, shio=salt). There are at least a couple of reasons we prefer sesame salt to plain table salt. First of all, it delivers a lot more flavor per gram of sodium. Secondly, sesame seeds are highly nutritious, containing as they do iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, and calcium, along with thiamine and vitamin E.

Here’s how to make sesame salt: 1) Rinse 1/2 cup unhulled brown or black sesame seeds in a fine mesh strainer and shake dry. 2) Heat a cast iron or similar thick-bottomed pan and pour in the seeds along with 1 to 1  1/2 teaspoons good quality sea salt. 3) Toast this over low heat, shaking or stirring constantly, about five minutes or until the seeds smell aromatic, turn a slightly darker color and begin to pop. 4) Grind with a mortar and pestle until about 75 % of the seeds are ground. 5) Cool, then store in a container with a lid. No need to refrigerate. Sesame salt will keep for weeks, but you’ll probably use it before then.  Sprinkle on rice, other grain dishes, noodles, even toast. Adjust the amount of salt to suit your taste. If you double or triple the recipe, it will take longer to toast the seeds. Yes, if you make a larger batch, a food processor works great, but using a mortar and pestle is more traditional and more fun.

Variations: Change up this recipe by substituting other seeds: flax, sunflower, pumpkin. Another variation: toast pumpkin seeds in a 325˚ F oven just until they begin to smell great and look a little golden, then sprinkle them lightly with umeboshi vinegar and toast for a few minutes more, or until they are dry. Watch closely! Chop coarsely in a food processor–an incredibly tasty condiment.

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Photos–Top: Grinding sesame seeds and salt with a mortar and pestle. Above: Toasting sesame seeds and salt in a cast iron skillet. Every kitchen needs one!

Great Grains: Why We Love Brown Rice

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Rice. Is there anything new to say about this almost ubiquitous staple food? I’ve read that rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans, and when you consider that the world’s most populous countries, China and India, are rice-eating nations, that’s plausible. When I began researching rice, I was vaguely aware that it was domesticated long ago in China (10,000 years ago, in fact) but I had no idea that rice was a significant African crop, where it’s been cultivated for 3,500 years. In fact, the first rice grown in the U.S. came from Africa, and it was African slaves who taught Carolina plantation owners how to grow rice. Today, rice is an important crop in our backyard, California’s Sacramento Valley.

In Japan, the rice-eating country I know best, rice is considered essential, not just as food, but culturally. It’s sometimes said that rice-eating cultures are more communal because, historically, no farmer could grow rice on his or her own, building and maintaining the paddies and intricate water systems took the whole village working together. Consider how rice has been used in Japan, not just as a filling grain, but as an alcoholic beverage (sake), a condiment (rice vinegar), a sweet snack (mochi), a sweet drink (amasake), an essential element in miso, an ingredient in tea (genmai cha), in paper, in tatami floor mats, and on and on.

Finally, to “brown” rice, which I think is a bit of a misnomer. Creamy colored, or beige maybe, but brown, definitely not. To me, eating so-called brown rice ought to be a no-brainer. Right off the top, there’s the added fiber. And remember, it’s not just the outside layer that’s removed to create white rice, it’s the bran as well which is thought to lower LDL cholesterol. Compared to white rice, brown rice is higher in B vitamins, iron and has four times as much magnesium. And to me, it just tastes more interesting. If your family or friends think they don’t like brown rice, mix in vegetables, or wild rice, seeds, nuts, herbs.  Make it interesting enough and they won’t notice the difference. Or try basmati or jasmine brown rice, both flavorful on their own, or add brown rice to soup or to rice pudding. Really, jazz it up a bit and the difference disappears. Brown rice does take longer to cook, but the added time is well rewarded. After the jump, I give you my method for cooking brown rice, as well as a recipe for gomashio, the toasted sesame seed condiment which is a great companion to rice. It turns out, there is a lot to say about rice, and in future posts, I’ll talk about various kinds of rice, and the dishes you can make with them.

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To make sesame seed sprinkle (gomashio), first toast sesame seeds over medium heat in a cast iron pan (recipe after the jump). Photo top: small bowls of short grain brown rice garnished with sesame seed sprinkle and nori.

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