Poppy seeds: particular signs and uses in the kitchen
A special flower, cheerful and dangerous
Red, pink and sometimes white poppy flowers, are seen everywhere for a few weeks in mid-spring. They are light, and move swaying at the slightest breeze and their color makes you think of the sun’s light and heat during nice days. They don’t need a lot of humidity, they can be found in an open field but they grow well - spontaneously - even on neglected and uncultivated grounds, along the side of the street and even near train tracks.
The common Papaver rhoeas is found in our gardens (grows well in any type of mild climate) and it is considered as a weed: the capsule shaped fruit is able to lose poppy seeds at a certain distance, which propagate easily and take away space and nutrients from other cultivated plants.
The common poppy (also called corn poppy) contains a low quantity of alkaloids with sedative properties, contained in the petals. The opium poppy seeds - Papaver somniferum - are instead used in some countries precisely to obtain a much greater content of an active hallucinogenic substance, extracted from latex produced by the seminiferous capsule. From opium poppy seed, several illegal drugs are obtained, but authorised pharmacology uses it to produce medicines with a sedative and analgesic effect.
Poppy seeds: around the world and general usage
Fortunately for us and our palate, poppy seeds and its oil when used in the kitchen are not at all toxic, they do not contain alkaloids and are legal; apart from this, they are very appreciated as ingredients for cakes, sweet rolls and aromatic bread typically prepared in central and southern Europe and in german speaking countries.
In Asia (where China and India are the biggest producers) poppy seeds are at the base for some soups with an exotic and characteristic flavor, condiment for savory plates and - again - at the heart of some desserts.
In the cuisine of the jewish tradition they are used as garnish for cakes and plumcakes; in Germany, Austria and “Mitteleuropa” generally they are used as a tasty garnish on top of bread, or as almost the only ingredient for sweet rolls, or in some versions of knödel (dumplings) and of strudel.
From these seeds you can also obtain an oil that has been used for a long time in the kitchen, recommended as an exotic flavored condiment and a spicy addition on special salads or fish. Other than for cooking ( it used to be mixed with other oils to imitate olive oil), already in the XIX century, poppy seed oil was used in lamps and lighting and as a component of paints, where it has been used (Afghanistan) for over 1500 years. Enriched with iodine, the oil is used in medicine to prevent deficiencies and treat goiter and as a contrast medium in medical exams; it could also have a role in the treatment of some types of tumor.
Nutritional properties and a few recipes
Without gluten, extremely energizing (they provide more than 500 calories per 100 grams), poppy seeds are also very rich in minerals - especially calcium, phosphorus, manganese and iron. B1 and other vitamins of the B group are found in high percentage in these seeds, that also have a high concentration of proteins but are not reccomended for those who suffer of diverculitis.
Of blu-black, iron gray or yellowish color, they are used whole as a garnish on top of cakes and baked goods, or minced more or less friendly to be used inside the dessert fillings or even integrated in some special bread doughs. Here, the seeds are found pretty easily, but in the States and in some other countries they are sold in a can as a pretty dense dough. Amongst the most known and beloved recipes in central Europe there is poppy seed strudel- Mohnstrudel - that is prepared with a filling of minced seeds, a little lemon juice, raisins and honey, and it can be flavored with an aromatic liqueur like rum.
For those who prefer the soft consistency of plumcake, you can cook it by boiling the seeds in milk, whilst the other ingredients are the usual ones. Those who prefer savory foods are spoiled for choice, between using these seeds as a crunchy addition to a chicken salad (best if lightly crushed), mixed with balsamic vinegar in a vinaigrette for a mixed fruit and vegetable salad or as a condiment for baked fish dishes.