I can still see her, the petite French girl, chic in her off-the-shoulder summer dress pulling a chef’s knife from her purse. We’d met at a dinner party. I was newly married, working my way through French cookbooks, and as Tante Marie had instructed me to seed my tomatoes, I’d told her that in all my girlhood years of cooking, I’d never heard of such an operation. How do you get the seeds out of a tomato without ruining it? She laughed and offered to come show me. We were in Berkeley, she was part of the university’s philosophy crowd (my new husband’s old friends), and I was enchanted by her offer. Made sablé cookies for our tea.
She took one of the big fat red fruits I’d bought (you remember tomatoes are fruit, having seeds in the center), turned it on its side, and with her knife sliced between stem and blossom ends. Cupping a half-tomato in her hand, she pointed out the seeds were tidily gathered in pockets. She asked for a demitasse spoon (I was so glad I had one, largesse from my mother’s silver chest), and she deftly scooped the seeds into a bowl. When she started to pour the bowl’s glistening contents into the sink, I cried, “I want to taste them!” Jelly encasing each seed, they were tart, delicious.
Suddenly it occurred to me to ask, “Why do you take the seeds out of tomatoes anyway?”
With withering condescension she replied, “Because they get stuck in your teeth!”
That’s all? It seemed silly to me then and even sillier now. I’ve only seeded tomatoes when I’ve stuffed them—to make more space for the stuffing—I’ve maybe stuffed tomatoes three times in sixty years.
Her remark popped into my head this morning as I was plinging blackberry seeds from my teeth. Clearly sybaritic French don’t seed blackberries or raspberries whose seeds are far more teeth-space-sticking. I have seen recipes that require seeding grapes to be served fresh—I can’t imagine there are twelve cooks on earth who would bother.
Some recipes call for seeding cucumbers but I also find that silly. Silvery seeds of cucumbers have flavor and texture—and of course texture is a primary consideration in cooking.
And for some time now I don’t bother trimming out all the seeds from sweet peppers…they’re delicate in size and flavor, can add a bit of stipple to a dish. (I do trim out the pithy white inside a pepper if there’s a lot of it.) Seeds of hot chili peppers are what contain the capsicum’s heat, you likely know, and should be left in or taken out according to the desired intensity of your dish. These seeds are what we buy in the spice section, “Red Chili Seeds.” Which makes me think it’s a thrifty idea to dry and bottle seeds oneself.
I got to thinking about the seeds we eat. When I plunged into vegetable gardening and grew corn for the first time, I was astonished to find that an ear of corn is an orderly seed bank. Green beans are plushy seed holders. Pea pods are svelte seed cases. Peanut shells are sturdy seed protectors. The legumes we enjoy—these beans, peas, lentils, and pulses like winged beans—are seeds.
And what we call nuts are often the seeds of trees! Obviously pine nuts are seeds of trees—have you ever nipped out seeds from a pine cone, delicately lifting each wing to steal its seed? And so are pistachios, almonds, cashews, pecans, macadamias, filberts, and walnuts tree seeds. I wish the word awesome hadn’t been ruined because I find that awesome.
Grasses are seeds. Each grain of rice is a seed…as is each nubbin of oats and barley, berries of wheat and rye, buckwheat, quinoa—and corn is a grass, too.
Such a pretty notion. Pomegranate seeds are a pretty and delicious notion.
Then there are the tiny seeds we love for their flavors, vanilla seeds from their orchid pods, mustard seeds ground to paste and moistened into the ubiquitous spread for sandwiches…
Poppy seeds do, alas, stick in the teeth (best to check a hand mirror after enjoying an Everything bagel)…as can anise, fennel, caraway, cumin, sesame, celery, nigella seeds…
We usually grind up larger flavoring seeds such as cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, and fenugreek.
Then there are the seeds from the cottage garden—we roast pumpkin seeds for their crunch. Sunflower seeds, too. Seeds of flax give us delightful blue flowers and linen for clothing, linseed oil for painters, meal for animals, and a nutritional sprinkling for our cereal.
And, for heavens’ sake, our coffee and cocoa are the essences of seeds.
Is it too obvious to add that a seed is uncommonly nourishing because it contains the essentials for a plant to reproduce itself?
But returning to French cooking, in the Limousin, cherry pits are left in the fruit at the bottom of the custardy dessert, clafouti—you’re supposed to warn everybody. Me, sometimes I leave the pits in and sometimes I take my handy cherry-pitter and remove them. But inevitably a pit or two escapes the gizmo and someone bites down with a yelp…
Well, at least cherry pits don’t get stuck in the teeth.