Camelina: The New Flax and How to Cook with it
After a multi-nation travel bonanza, I am finally back in New York. In less than a month, I completed a New York - Hong Kong - Estonia - Latvia - Hong Kong - Beijing - Mongolia - Hong Kong - New York loop. The trip ended terribly with all my travel photos lost and a two day delay at the Beijing airport, but much of the good part still lingers in my head.
Looking back, one of my favourite spots on this long journey was a humble oil store in the middle of nowhere in Saaremaa, Estonia. Saaremaa is the biggest island in Estonia, literally meaning "Isle Island". Located just four hours away from Tallinn, one has to embark on a ferry from the town of Virtsu to Muhu Island, which connects to Saaremaa by a causeway. Once on the ferry, we were presented with a booklet featuring a coalition of local companies, and naturally became our guidebook. In the next few days, we based in the capital of Kuressaare, and drove to nearby villages with whimsical names like Pöide, Karja and Panga.
One of the featured stores, Karmeli, is namesake of the village Kaarma where it is located. If we didn't spot out the small shed (aka store), we would've thought we have trespassed into someone's home. The store was empty, but shortly after pressing the small bell at the front, a friendly face came out to greet us.
That would be Karel, son of the land owner, who runs the business with his sister. The duo redesigned the company logo and constructed the micro-store around a year ago. They sell a variety of farm products, featuring buckwheat, hemp and camelina sativa. "Estonians have been eating camelina oil for decades, but have forgotten about it as large factories replace family-run businesses. Saaremaa still produces some of the country's best meat and produce, but large corporations are no longer interested in producing organically and sustainably." Karel says as he pointed to the field of yellow camelina flowers beyond the store.
We walked outside to the field where he gave us a close look of the orbital camelina flowers with plump yellow ends. "Estonia has a strong foraging culture - schools teach little children how to identify edible plants from a young age. But in general, nothing is really toxic here, especially on this island. Here, this bunch of camelina flowers will be great for tea when you return to the hotel. Even the president approves of its oil!"
Back in the store. Karel poured us shots of deep yellow camelina oil to taste. Also known as the "gold of pleasure", the oil is full-bodied with a nutty and herbaceous note, and is a great source of omega-3. The distinct flavour may taste like a specialty oil, but the high smoke point makes it a versatile oil for sauteeing, roasting and grilling.
Baby Kale Salad with Sweet Potato, Charred Onion & Tomato with Lemon Sesame Camelina Dressing
Serves 2-3 as an appetizer.
Karel recommends serving camelina oil with sweet summer tomatoes, which is what I do here, with an Asian twist. I happen to have some mini Japanese sweet potatoes that has a mochi-like chewiness, but you may substitute with any sweet potato. If you do that, pick a tomato that complements the colour of the sweet potato of your choice. I recommend red, orange or purple varieties which tend to be sweeter. Also, you are likely to have extra dressing, which is not a bad thing.
For the Dressing:
¼ cup camelina oil
~ 1 teaspoon sesame oil, to taste
1 teaspoon soy sauce
juice from ½ lemon
½ teaspoon dijon mustard
~ 1 teaspoon salt, to taste
For the Salad:
2-3 oz baby kale
10-12 mini Japanese sweet potato
½ sweet onion
1 yellow heirloom tomato
small handful of basil leaves
parsley and black sesame, to garnish
- Prep the warm salad ingredients. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Line a small baking tray with foil and arrange mini sweet potatoes on it, no oil is required. Roast for 8-10 minutes, until the skin is slightly charred. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly.
- Hold the onion at the root end, and place it sideways on the cutting board. Peel away the skin and cut the onion into thick slices, around half an inch thick. Leave them as rings or cut into half moons.
- In a medium skillet, heat a tablespoon of oil at medium heat, and gently arrange onion slices. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and cook for 5-8 minutes, or until the bottoms get a good sear. Gently flip with a spatula, making sure they don't separate. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, until the onion slices are soft and translucent. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Meanwhile, cut tomatoes lengthwise into half inch slices. Depending on the size, keep them whole or cut into halves. Chiffonade basil leaves; rinse and separate parsley leaves from stalks.
- To make the dressing, place everything in a small jar and shake vigorously, taste with sesame oil, making sure it doesn't overpower the flavour of the camelina oil.
- To serve, on a large serving plate, arrange baby kale on the bottom, and gently toss through tomato slices and sweet potato, reserving a couple for the top. Gently place on onion slices, and scatter the remaining tomato slices and sweet potato. Drizzle generoulsy with the dressing, and garnish with basil, parsley and a sprinkle of black sesame.