Lately I have been inspired by Pascal Bauder’s cookbook The New Wildcrafted Cuisine and can’t quit yapping on about it. Most recently I found myself trying to apply his eye to sunflowers. They are a common weed in my area, and so useful to the birds and so pretty in bloom that I can hardly bear to pull them out, so I have far too many of them. Recently there was internet info that ” You can eat the leaves and the stems and the buds!” This does not accord with my own experience; edible yes, choice not hardly- so I set out to experiment.
The leaves are very coarse and fibrous, and my own experiments in cooking them have been totally unsuccessful when there are so many other wonderful things to eat. They might be a useful survival food, but for thriving at the table they are not good fodder. I do like the sprouts in salads, the first two cotyledons that emerge when the plant sprouts, but when the leaves are any larger than that they are not to my taste. Incidentally, it is easy to plant a large handful of viable seed in an out of the way area maybe a foot square in late fall, and at whatever time it comes up in the spring you will have a bunch of sunflower sprouts ready to harvest and all in one place. They are delicious in salads. Just remember to get them before the true leave start forming. There is no toxicity at any point, but I only find them pleasant to chew before true leaves form.
My current experiments are with the stem. This gives me the opportunity for another blast at Internet information provided by people who have never actually eaten the plant in question. You will find information that “you can eat the stem and it tastes just like celery!” Do not just grab a stem out of the garden and start chewing, even a small one, because from a very early age they have a very fibrous outer layer. But yesterday I found myself engaged in a long boring kitchen task that required continual presence but very little attention, and decided to do some experimenting. The first part was simple: peel off the outer layer. This is easily accomplished with a vegetable peeler, but if you don’t have too many stems to work with you will lose a fair amount of edible material this way. I started by working my thumbnail under the fibrous layer of the lower cut end of the stem, peeling upward, and then using the vegetable peeler just to skim off whatever stringy bits were left. I started with stems about the size of my index finger, and they were about as thick as my little finger when I finished. They seemed to discolor slightly as I worked with them, so I dropped them in a bowl of water with a squirt of lemon juice in it.
Tasted raw, they were pleasant in a mild way, with a touch of sunflower flavor, mostly a generic mild green taste, and a great crisp texture. I wouldn’t bother to eat them that often, but they were nice enough. But when cooked, they came into their own.
I combined them with some tender shoots of wolfberry (goji,) probably about half and half. Be sure to cook only goji shoots that snap cleanly off. If any peeling of bark occurs, they’re too tough to eat whole.
I’ve become a fan of using macadamia nut oil for dishes like this, where I want to be sure that I can taste the nuances of flavor in the plants. Macadamia nut oil is very stable, has a high smoke point, and has a pleasant rich buttery flavor but does not mask other flavors in the way that a strong olive oil might. I added a good pinch of salt and stir fried the mixture until the goji leaves were dark green and beginning to crisp, but not to the point of any browning.
The result was delicious. The goji leaves and stems had a pleasant mild herbal flavor, and the peeled sunflower stalks had come into a rich nuttiness with artichoke overtones but retained some crispness.
It made an excellent cook’s treat, and I will try it again on a larger scale. I think that a minute or two more of stirfrying would have benefited the sunflower stems a lot, and next time, I will not combine them with other shoots but will work on getting the cooking time exactly right for them. But this was an excellent simple dish that I would not be ashamed to serve to anybody. Now I find myself speculating about the gray stripe sunflower grown for bird food, and whether its enormous single stem would be palatable at a young age. Only one way to find out.
And don’t worry, I will always leave plenty of sunflowers for the birds.