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posted: 3/7/2014 1:01 AM

The poppy seed, that spectacular speck

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  • Poppy seeds erupt from the pods left behind after the petals fall away.

    Poppy seeds erupt from the pods left behind after the petals fall away.

By Barbara Damrosch
Special To The Washington Post

The 2006 edition of "Joy of Cooking," in a recipe for seed cake, refers to "bygone days of antimacassars and aspidistra plants, when seeds were used instead of extracts."

A savvy cook will still enliven a dish with seeds of caraway, fennel or dill, so simple to grow at home and so much better when fresh. Poppy seeds are in a class by themselves. Mild-flavored enough to use in quantity, they lend a crunchy texture to food and, thanks to their high oil content, a satisfying richness.

A generous sprinkle of poppy seeds makes a bagel more interesting -- likewise a cookie, a pancake, a pudding, a salad topped with fruit, even a pile of buttered noodles. But when the seeds are baked into the dish, they play a bigger role. Poppy seed muffins or tea cakes are flavored by mixing a few tablespoons of the seeds into the dry ingredients. The seeds' highest use comes when they are ground into a grainy-textured paste, as in the famous German mohn cake -- mohnkuchen -- with its cake bottom, buttery streusel topping and generous filling of deep black poppy seeds steeped in milk and sugar. Search the Middle Eastern and Eastern European repertoire and you will find countless desserts with ground poppy seeds, which are more akin to sesame seeds or to oil-rich nuts than they are to caraway or dill.

Modern cooks tend to buy ground poppy seeds in cans, but you can grind your own with a poppy seed grinder ($25 or less online) or coffee grinder. It's important to grow the right species, Papaver somniferum. You'll find it in the flower section of catalogues because of the gorgeous blossoms, in a wide range of bright colors, that account for its popularity.

You'll also see it labeled breadseed poppy, but rarely opium poppy, even though that's what it is. (Sometimes you'll see it as florist's poppy, if it's a variety with especially large, showy seed capsules, used in ornamental arrangements when dried.) Look for varieties that emphasize good flavor, abundant seeds and pods with closed vents from which the seeds don't easily fall. Ziar and Elka, from Fedco Seeds, are noteworthy.

If you have ever eaten a poppy seed bagel you know that the seeds are small. In the garden, it helps to mix them with some sand for even, uncrowded sowing. Thin seedlings to give each eight inches of space to develop. You might even have good luck sowing in fall for spring germination.

After the beautiful petals are gone, the green pods are decorative in the garden. If scored with a knife, they ooze the sticky white sap that produces opium, the very same substance sipped by Victorian ladies in the form of the extract laudanum, as they reclined in antimacassar-decked chaises among the aspidistras. Pass this harvest by. Its taste is profoundly bitter, not to mention toxic, and its use is a federal crime. A slice of mohnkuchen, with a glass of good German Riesling, will give you a far better high.

• Damrosch's latest book is "The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook"; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.

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