Sunflower

Sunflower   (Heather Burns photo)

If there was an unofficial sym­bol of summer, I would have to nominate the sunflower.

This eternally happy, summer annual is remarkably tough and easy to grow. They are heat and drought tolerant, and attract the much needed bee, which is essential for cross pollination in any garden.

Sunflowers come in several size varieties, from small patio pot size to giant 16-foot tall varieties with large daisy-like flower faces that are bright yellow like the summer sun. The flower heads be­come heavy when the brown center of the flower ripens, and is filled with sunflower seeds.

Sunflower seeds are technically the fruit of the sunflower plant. Some sunflower heads can measure up to 12 inches in diameter, and a single flower head can contain up to 2,000 seeds.

Sunflower seeds are enjoy­ed by many as a favorite snack food. They are encas­ed in a black and white striped shell, and have a mild, nutty flavor. Sunflower seeds are not only a tasty treat, but they are also pack­ed with nutrients.

Sunflower seeds are loaded with protein, fiber, niacin, iron, zinc and vitamin B6. They are especially high in vitamin E, folate, copper, manganese and selenium.

Many of these nutrients function as antioxidants, which protect the body cells from radical damage that plays a role in many chronic diseases.

According to Healthline.com, studies show that ad­ding sunflower seeds to your diet can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.

Although sunflower seeds are rich in nutrients, they are relatively high in calories. One ounce serving of shelled, dry roasted, sunflower seeds has 163 calories. Normally, snack foods high in calories are not a recommended snack choice. How­ever, because it takes time to crack open and split each shell before you can eat the seed, most people eat sunflower seeds at a slower pace, thus not consuming as many as other snack foods. Overall, the nutritional value of these seeds outweighs the higher calorie count.

Some people enjoy sucking on the salty taste of the shell before cracking them open to eat the seed inside. Keep in mind that commercially packed sunflower seeds may be coated with up to 2,500 mg of sodium. If you are on a low sodium diet, it is best to skip this ritual before you consume the seed.

Besides eating as a snack food, sunflower seeds are easy to incorporate into many of your favorite recipes.

Sunflower seeds can add a nutty, toasted flavor to soda bread recipes. This also goes for sweet bread recipes like banana, zucchini or pumpkin bread.

Sprinkle (shelled) sunflow­er seeds on top of muffins or scones before baking to add a nice crunch to every bite.

Sunflower seeds also add a nice crunch to leafy green vegetables. Toss sunflowers in olive oil, salt, red pepper flakes or ground ginger. Lightly toast before adding to your favorite vegetables like spinach, kale or green beans.

Ground sunflower seed can be used as a breading for chicken and fish, or mix with tofu and seasonings to make delicious vegetarian burgers.

The votes are in for the un­official symbol of summer. Sunflowers are a bright and happy asset to any patio or garden, and the seed of the sunflower is an asset to a heal­thy diet. Whether you enjoy shelling and snacking on sunflower seeds while watching a ball game, or try incorporating sunflower seeds into your favorite recipes, enjoy the “fruits” of the sunflower all summer long.

For a variety of recipes that incorporate the sunflower seed into your everyday diet, visit www.epicurious.com.

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