How to Cook a Sunflower

Rachel Tepper Paley
August 18, 2014

This is an (edible, fried) sunflower. Photo credit: thepumpernickel/Instagram

Ever chowed down on a sunflower? We’re not talking sunflower seeds or sunflower oil, but the meaty heart of a golden-petaled sunflower.

Recent diners at Eleven Madison Park in New York City have done so. Braised sunflower, a dish chef Daniel Humm has added to his four-star restaurant’s summer menu, is a visual stunner, boasts a super-unique star ingredient, and tastes… oddly familiar.

The sunflower is botanical cousin to the artichoke, so it follows that it tastes remarkably like one—woodsy, earthy, and creamy.

At Eleven Madison Park, cooks first strip the flower of its colorful petals and fibrous stem. Then they plunge it three times into boiling water, then an ice bath. Once dry, the sunflower heart is braised until tender in a rich barigoule sauce of white wine, onion, fennel, thyme, bay leaves, and lemon—a riff on a classic artichoke preparation. The chef cakes one side with buttery brioche crust crumbs and sears it until it’s a perfect golden-brown disc.

The intricate process ensures “that all the floral aroma from the sunflower is gone, because the flower tastes so floral that it’s horrible,” Eleven Madison Park representative Sarah Rosenberg told us. “It’s like a wheat grass perfume.” Not all that appetizing, unlike Eleven Madison Park’s version, which tastes like an artichoke heart that’s somehow (impossibly) artichoke-i-er.

Didn’t realize sunflower hearts are edible? Don’t feel too badly about it: Even John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, hasn’t tried eating one. Nor has he ever come across a recipe for sunflower heart or seen such a dish featured on a restaurant menu. ”I’ve never even heard of it,” Sandbakken told us.

Although Native American tribes have cultivated sunflowers for their seeds since 3,000 B.C., to Sandbakken’s knowledge these cultures never got creative with other parts of the sunflower. The modern sunflower industry, he added, isn’t set up for sunflower heart harvesting. Each flower would have to be plucked from the field individually, the worker taking care not to bruise each specimen. Currently, commercial fields are machine-harvested and sunflowers are largely processed for their seeds or turned into cooking oil. (Chef Humm gets his from local organic farms.)

But Sandbakken was nonetheless intrigued by the idea of braised sunflower heart.

"I’m always up for trying new flavors," he said. "And I like artichokes." We have a convert. Eleven Madison Park, keep those reservation lines open.