Flax of Life
Last week I was in the dentist’s office for my regular cleaning appointment. I was glancing through a health magazine while waiting for the dentist to see me. An article on nature’s wonder-food, flaxseeds, caught my attention. The article went on to describe how researchers have found that flax seeds are helpful in fighting heart disease, guard against hypertension, prevent cancer, control diabetes, and a long list of other health benefits. I did not finish reading the article, but it sparked my interest in finding out more about this wonder-food.
I visited a neighborhood health store and decided to seek out the flaxseeds. I was astounded to find that flaxseeds, was none other than “akshi” which my grandmother and mother used in making chutney for our everyday meal. Flaxseeds are called as “akshi” in Kannada, “jawas” in Marathi and “alsi” in Hindi. These seeds are flat, oval, glossy, and are pointed at one end. The color of the flaxseed ranges from light to dark reddish brown. Whole flaxseed comes with Mother Nature’s own finest packaging—its natural hard hull keeps it fresh.
Flax has long been known for its use in linen clothing, and now it is gaining considerable attention as a food for its possible role in lowering the risk of heart disease. Flaxseed is an ancient, blue flowering crop cultivated extensively in Canada. The flax plant produces a fiber from which linen is woven and an edible seed from which oil can be extracted. During the industrial revolution, flaxseed oil, also called linseed oil, was commonly used in paints, varnishes, and linoleum.
Flaxseed has long been valued for its health benefits but only recently have researchers investigated its helpful compounds. One of the unique characteristics of flax is the oil in the seed. Flaxseed is over 40 percent oil. Like other vegetable oils, flax oil is a mixture of fatty acids, but it is the highest single source of a fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA.
ALA is a member of the omega-3 fatty acid family. They are essential fatty acids, which the body cannot make, but absolutely needs for normal growth and development. These fats must be supplied by diet. Hundreds of studies have shown that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of heart attacks, strokes, and abnormal heart rhythms. Lately, omega-3 fatty acids have become more visible in the grocery store as various producers are selling eggs that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Well the easiest way to increase the omega-3 fatty acids in eggs is to feed the hen flaxseed. Thus, we the end consumer, have a choice—eat omega-3 enriched eggs or go to the source and add flax to our diet directly!
Whole flax seeds are sold inexpensively at natural-food stores and some Indian grocery stores. It is best to buy them whole and grind them as needed in a coffee grinder. It is imperative to grind these tiny, hard-shelled seeds, or they will pass through the body undigested. Ground flax meal is also available in some health stores but it should be refrigerated in an airtight, opaque container, where it will keep for up to 30 days. You’ll know that flax meal has spoiled if it smells like oil paint.
These little brown seeds also make a great egg substitute. When flax seeds are blended with water, they develop a texture like egg whites. This slightly gummy substance can be used in place of eggs or egg whites in baked goods or as an excellent binder in meatless-loaves made from nuts, grains, and vegetables.
To replace one egg, grind about 1 tablespoons of flax seeds to a fine powder in a blender, spice mill, or food processor. Add 3 tablespoons of water and blend until slightly thickened, about a minute. If mixing by hand after grinding the seeds, whisk vigorously for a few minutes to thicken the mixture. This egg substitute is not suitable for recipes like soufflés or sponge cakes.
My grandmother would always insist we all eat akshi chutney in our everyday meal. Each person in our family had their unique way of enjoying this chutney. My grandma would eat it with a spoon of yogurt, my father would relish it with a dollop of ghee, my mother would enjoy it with a spoon of plain cooked dal. My brother would add it to his glass of buttermilk and my sister would sprinkle it on her salad. I developed my own style with dal and ghee. Here is the recipe for the nutritious chutney. Enjoy it any way you like!
Flaxseed is high in fiber, so it’s important to increase water intake along with increased in flax intake.
1 cup flax seeds
10-12 curry leaves
6-8 dried red chillies
Salt to taste
In a toaster oven place the seeds, curry leaves, and red chilies at 250 degrees for 10-12 minutes. You will get the nutty roasted aroma. Cool for 15 minutes and grind the seeds to the consistency of cornmeal in a coffee grinder. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator for one month.
Hema’s Hints: Mix 1 tablespoon flax chutney to 2 tablespoons cream cheese to make a delicious and nutritious spread for bagels.
My English friend, Julie Jenkins, introduced me to the world of scones. I decided to add flaxseed to make it more nutritious. These scones are perfect for tea or brunch.
1¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour
¼ cup flax seed
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon orange essence
1 teaspoon orange rind
½ cup dried cranberries (chopped)
8-10 almonds (chopped)
½ teaspoon orange essence
¾ cup buttermilk
¼ cup oil
Heat the oven to 400°F.
Grind the flax seeds to a coarse texture in a blender or coffee grinder.
In a bowl mix all the dry ingredients well and keep aside.
Mix buttermilk, oil, and orange essence together.
On a cookie sheet place a wax paper and grease well.
Mix the dry ingredients with the buttermilk mix.
Knead gently with floured hands. Form the dough into a 7-inch circle across, ½ inch high. Place this on the greased cookie sheet. With a sharp knife make 8 wedges, leaving them in place.
Sprinkle sugar over these wedges.
Bake at 400° for 18-20 minutes till the crust develops a golden hue and the center is semi-firm.
Serve hot with a pat of butter.
Hema’s Hints: For variety, replace orange essence with ½ teaspoon of elaichi powder. Whole wheat pastry flour is available in health stores.
Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of the television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet (DVDs now available at the Sunnyvale and Cupertino libraries in Northern California). Visit her website at www.massala.com