Until I was twenty something, the only edible part of sunflower I knew was salty, musty seeds in plastic packets. They're so much more though. Fresh seeds are great to cook with, and their high oil content makes them *almost* a seamless substitute for pine nuts in things like pesto, which is great for saving a couple bucks.
The high oil content has another benefit too: the oil can be pressed. Oil from sunflower seeds, specifically Smude's oil, (only their brand has the sunflower flavor I crave of all I've tasted) from Pierz MN has a unique, concentrated sunflower flavor, and can be substituted where you'd use expensive extra virgin olive oil, at about half the price.
Instead of an ornamental posterplant of summer and something I ate playing t-ball as a kid, now I see sunflowers as something like an olive tree of the Midwest, (technically that would be hickory nut trees, but bear with me). There's one last edible part though, and truly, I've saved the best for last here.
Last year I discovered you can eat the unopened flowers themselves. I was walking through the garden in mid-summer when I noticed green, unopened sunflowers. I keep a look out for formations of young growth on plants a.k.a meristematic tissue/meristems, and I couldn't get over how much the unopened sunflower buds looked like artichokes.
A quick google and voila, there was plenty of information from gardeners on eating sunflower buds. I'd love to know more about indigenous uses too, as later in 2017 my friend Sean Sherman shared a recipe for braising sunflower heads in his book that won the James Beard award: The Souix Chef's Indigenous Kitchen.
I would guess that Hidatsa and other agrarian people's may have cooked these similarly, but that's speculation on my part. Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park also cooks sunflowers like this, as one of his signature dishes.
What do they taste like?
The cooked, peeled hearts have the texture of an artichoke, and the flavor of sunflower. If you can't picture what sunflower tastes like, you can get a hint by chewing the stems or leaves of a sunflower and spitting them out. The cooked buds have a specific flavor some online resources refer to it as "piney", but piney, from a culinary standpoint, is way off. Chew on white pine needles, that will taste piney.
The flavor of sunflower
With the plants I've tasted, the sunflower flavor seems more like a strong herbaceousness that concentrates with age. What's really interests me, is that the flavor of sunflower isn't specific to sunflowers, it's a sort of taste I associate with a number plants in the Aster family.
Silphium perfoliatum (especially the buds), and to a lesser extent Galinsoga parviflora, both of which have similar looking sunflower flowers, also taste of sunflower, as well as a bunch of plants I probably haven't tasted yet. Following that, if you know of other plants that taste like sunflower, leave a comment or shoot me an email.
When to harvest
You're looking for immature, green flower heads. A little yellow flower development doesn't seem to be bad (some of mine had a little) but generally the greener and younger something is, the more tender and mild it will be.
What types can you cook like this?
I ate common sunflowers, or Helianthus anuus, which give singular, large buds. If I grew these myself I'd like to get a branching sunflower that grows more than one flower head, since getting only one artichoke from each plant seems wasteful to me, and you don't get to see the flowers.
Although they aren't as large as the large or giant buds, branching sunflowers should give you more buds. There's a number of different varieties out there, and I can't speak to growing and eating all them, so you're on your own there. There are a few articles and youtube videos I found to be helpful.
A number of cultivars look like they can fruit throughout the year, and I love the idea of being able to walk through a garden and harvest sunflower buds continually through the season as a food, bringing them into the fold right alongside the other garden vegetables.
Sunflower and Friends
Since I had sunflower buds, sunflower seeds, the amazing oil from Smudes (have I convinced you to try that yet? It's cheap!) and a number of green plants related to sunflowers, I put them together to have a study on eating sunflower parts anointed with sunflower oil, and, of course, a couple sunflower seeds.
Dishes like this are what keep me searching for new ingredients, like tossing a fresh log on the fire. Here's the basic recipe below for preparing them, and the secondary recipe I made with all of the sunflower components as an example. Between you and me though, they didn't suck just dipped in butter with some crunchy salt either.
- Soup Pot, Sharp Paring Knife
- 1 large green sunflower head or multpile smaller heads from a branching sunflower plant
- 1 cup vegetable stock or water
- Kosher salt to taste
- Bring a quart of unsalted water to a simmer in a 2 qt sauce pan, then blanch the sunflower head for 3-4 minutes. Remove the sunflower bud from the pot, then transfer to a saute pan with the vegetable stock and a good pinch of salt. Cover the pan, then simmer until the sunflower bud is tender when pierced with a knife, about 3-4 minutes depending on size.
- Make sure the buds are tender, since they won't be able to be cleaned properly otherwise. Allow the sunflower buds to cool, then transfer to a cutting board and trim with a paring knife first removing the outer leaves, then scraping out any flower petals from the inner portion of the bud.
- Do not remove the base of the stem, it's a great part to eat, and is part of the plant. Transfer the buds to a container with a lid and refrigerate until needed if not using immediately. The recipe is easily scaled depending on how many heads you have.