The Ha'Penny Gourmet|
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|Friday, January 5th, 2007|
|Tom's Herb Column - Cinnamon: Innocent Bark or Sultry Spice? You make the call!
There are as many preferences for taste as there are people in the world. What is one person's bland may be another person's spicy. What is sweet to one could be bitter to another. However, there are some flavors that seem to be almost universally loved. Amongst these culinary luminaries is the ground powder of the bark from the Cinnamomum verum
tree, more commonly known as cinnamon. For centuries, the quest for spices dominated the political and economic scene of Europe and the Middle East. But how much do we today really know about cinnamon? Today we are going to take a look at this surprisingly versatile spice, its history and some uses that everyone can put it to in their kitchen. The results may surprise you.
Cinnamon is derived from the bark of an evergreen tree, Cinnamomum verum
, which is grown almost exclusively in the island nation of Sri Lanka. During the rainy season on the island, workers who harvest the cinnamon look for young branches that are just the right size to become the long sticks of cinnamon that are sold at market. The branches, still damp from the rains, are rubbed with rods and then cut with specially made knives that are designed to the purpose. The outer bark is removed and the inner bark is carefully dried in huts to become thin brittle sheets. The intact parts of the bark that do not break up in drying are rolled into the large cigar shaped rolls of several sheets per stick. The parts that do break up, no less valuable for not being intact, are bagged and sold as quillings or featherings which are destined for the spice mill and to fill out lesser grade cinnamons. The cinnamon that most of us Americans are familiar with, however, is not cinnamon at all. Meaning that it isn't from the C. verum
plant but is actually from the more widely produced C. burmannii
or C. cassia
trees. As a matter of fact, the cinnamon that we call cinnamon is called cassia by almost everyone else. Cassia is harvested almost exactly like true cinnamon but because it is grown in Indonesia, China and Viet Nam, there is significantly more to be had and so it has been adopted by American spice producers as being the
cinnamon for decades.
As confusing as the cassia-cinnamon crossover may be, the history of the spice is even more confusing and compelling than most people realize. Cinnamon in all of its various forms was one of the great commodities of the Ancient world, attributed with magical and mysterious powers. In Exodus, God commands Moses to use "sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty [shekels]... and five hundred of cassia - measured by the sanctuary shekel" in the anointing oil for the Holiest of Holies. This works out to be about six and a quarter pounds of cinnamon and twelve and a half pounds of cassia, which sounds pretty tame to us today but remember that cinnamon was incredibly valuable at that time. In modern dollars, Moses probably spent around seven thousand dollars on cinnamon alone! Not an insignificant thing in biblical times or today. Ancient Egyptians used cassia in their funerary lotions and embalming fluids while the Greeks and later the Romans used cinnamon and cassia as incense and sacrifices to their deities. Pliny tells us of cinnamon being used in funeral pyres to send the dead off to a sweet smelling heaven. Cinnamon was also attributed certain aphrodisiac properties, firing the blood and the passions when taken as prescribed by the Middle Ages physician Constantine. Whatever its supposed medicinal qualities, cinnamon eventually became a culinary commodity as well. Added to food on the Indian subcontinent for millennia, cinnamon was introduced first to the Arabian peninsula and then to Europe by way of the Roman empire and, after Rome's fall, by the great spice merchants of Venice. During the dawn of the 16th century, Portugal first established dominance over the Indian Ocean and the Spice Islands, bringing boatload after boatload of pepper, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon back to Europe. Soon, everyone knew what cinnamon was and what regional specialties it went best with. Over the years after the Age of Discovery and the Spice Race, the nations of the world have gotten used to spices in their everyday life and use them accordingly. However, the people who made and still make the best use of this pungent, slightly hot and completely unique spice are the cultures who first had it - The Indian and Arabic people.
Cinnamon and cassia have similar tastes but it is in the way that these two spices present themselves to the palate that differentiates the two. Cinnamon has a much more complex taste than cassia, with subtle undertones of orange and cedar followed by a heat that is reminiscent of cloves or a mild pepper. Chewing on a piece of cinnamon bark easily brings the flavor profile to the palate and lets the discriminating buyer know how good of a piece of cinnamon bark he or she actually has. The oils of true cinnamon bark are very volatile and evaporate and oxidize incredibly fast when released. This coupled with the fragility of the bark itself means that most true cinnamon is sold in stick format so that home grinding can be performed for the best taste possible. Cassia, on the other hand, discards subtlety in favor of heat and pungency. If cinnamon is the taste equivalent to a jazz quartet playing in a coffee shop, then cassia is the punk band playing in the bar down the street. Loud and bright, cassia is the cinnamon that we Americans are most familiar with. The intense fragrance, sharp bite and kick of heat is everything that we grew up with in pastries, candies and cookies. To this day, I will gladly take cassia over true cinnamon when making baked goods that feature cinnamon as a main flavor. I want punch and pizazz in those delectable goodies. It is when I am working on a complex curry or subtle pastry that goes with other courses that I will reach for the true cinnamon. As with everything, the key is knowing what tool to use for what job.Recipes
As I mentioned earlier, Middle Eastern and Indian cultures have been using cinnamon far longer than we Europeans and so have developed savory uses for it instead of solely as a dessert spice, like we have. One of the ways that they use this spice is in spice mixes that are created and stored to be used as a cooking condiment. By grinding their own spices at their homes, these cooks bring the flavors of not only cinnamon but many different spices to their food with a punch that store-bought, preground spices can't match. The reason is that the volitile oils that give spices their flavors are highly susceptible to light and heat and will break down far too rapidly. By grinding just before usage, home cooks get a much more intense, much more pungent flavor.
Before I start with the spice mix recipes, allow me a word about the spice grinders. The whole point of grinding a spice mix is to marry the flavors and also to get a uniform texture. If you have plenty of time on your hands and want those self-same appendages to be able to crack walnuts with a flick of the wrist, then you may use what countless Indian and Middle Eastern grandmothers use - a morter and pestle. It is certainly possible to reduce whole spices to powder with this ancient device but, to be perfectly honest, it is time consuming and a hell of a lot more effort than I am willing to put into grinding spices. Which is why I bring my game into the twenty-first century with a cheap, ten dollar coffee grinder. You'll want to get one solely for the use of your spices because unless you want your coffee flavored with cumin or coriander (and some people do!), it is worth shucking out the ten to fifteen dollars for a cheapo brand grinder. Your spices will get reduced to a fine powder, your dishes will taste yummier and you can instantly turn cheaper and more storable whole spices into powder as needed instead of relying on storebought sawdust in a glass container. Now, doesn't that sound better?
With all caveats aside, allow me to present two spice mixtures that feature the use of cinnamon in them. I highly recommend the use of true cinnamon in both of these mixtures instead of the more readily available cassia. The taste will be more complex, the scent more citrus than pepper. It is worth it to find the good stuff for savory dishes that need complexity over heat. Try your local Indian or Middle Eastern market (the little mom-and-pop shops, not the big mega-cultural stores) for bags of cinnamon sticks. The first recipe is an Indian spice mix which should be familiar to anyone who has eaten in Indian restaurants anywhere in the United States - garam masala
. The translation comes out to something like "hot mixture", but really it is not particularly not or at least it doesn't have to be. Just like most southeastern US families have their own "secret recipe" for barbeque sauce, most Indian families have their own formulas for garam masala. This one comes from Madhur Jaffrey's book, Flavors of India
.( Punjabi garam masalaCollapse )
Where the Indian spice mix adds coriander and cumin with the cinnamon, this Middle Eastern spice mix uses allspice and cloves as the primary balance for cinnamon. This "Middle Eastern Five Spice" mix comes courtesy of Chef Ana Sortun's Spice - Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean
. I have adjusted the recipe slightly to allow for the use of whole cinnamon instead of the preground Chef Sortun recommends.( Middle Eastern Five SpiceCollapse )
Let's move on to an actual dish that has cinnamon as a key flavor component in it. North Africa has a rich tradition of using spices in their cuisine and since the ubiquitous dish for the region is a tangine, I have borrowed this recipe for a tangine of beef with prunes from Sarah Woodward's Tastes of North Africa
. Don't go making faces when I say "prunes", either! Prunes are simply pitted and dehydrated plums and with the long, slow moist cooking of a tangine (read, braising), those prunes plump up and release a lot of taste into the mix. I've personally had this recipe and thought it was awesome so now I give it to you.( Tagine de Viande aux PrunesCollapse )
From North Africa, let us roll back acround the Mediterrenean to Turkey. From Chef Sortun, we have this recipe for Halibut cooked in milk with cinnamon, fried almonds and spinach. She says that she picked this up from a friend in Istanbul and edited his Greek method of cooking the fish in milk with lemon and capers to make it a little more Arabic. I think you will enjoy this recipe as much as the customers at her restaurant do.( Halibut Cooked in Milk with Cinnamon, Fried Almonds and SpinachCollapse )( Oranges a la CannelleCollapse )( Classic PulaoCollapse )
In the last several recipes, I have recommended using true cinnamon. That is to say the bark of the Cinnamomum verum
tree, otherwise known as true cinnamon. The next two recipes owe less to cinnamon's complex flavor and more to the pungent heat of cassia. So put away that hard to find real cinnamon you have and reach for the bottle of preground cassia powder that every grocery store sells because these two are looking for a burst of heat and flavor, not complexity.( Cincinnati ChiliCollapse )( Cinnamon TreatsCollapse )
Baljekar, Mridula et al. Best-Ever Curry Cookbook.
London: Anness Publishing, 2002.
Day, Martha. Complete Baking.
London: Anness Publishing, 2002.
Jaffrey, Madhur. Flavors of India.
Seattle: West 175 Publishing, 1995.
Ortiz, Elisabeth Lambert. The Encyclopedia of Herbs, Spices & Flavorings.
New York: DK Adult Publishing, 1992.
Peter, K.V. Handbook of Herbs and Spices.
New York: CRC Publishing, 2004.
Sortun, Ana and Nicole Chaison. Spice - Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean.
New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Stuckey, Maggie. The Complete Spice Book.
New York: St. Martins, 1997.
Turner, Jack. Spice: The History of a Temptation.
London: Vintage Publishing, 2005.
Woodward, Sarah. Tastes of North Africa: Recipes from Morocco to the Mediterrenean.
London: Kyle Cathie Limited, 1998.
|Tuesday, August 15th, 2006|
|Food of Sundays Past
I can still remember the smells and noises of those long-ago Sundays when me, my brother and the rest of the children in my Sunday School class would go pounding down the tiled corridors of our church like a herd of elephants. I can only imagine what kind of racket we kicked up, running and laughing all the way to the kitchen. About halfway to that room, the smell of biscuits and sausage would hit us like a wall and spur us even faster. After all, the first one to the kitchen would get the best of the food!
Piling in the door like a pack of wild dogs, we would pause for a brief moment to make sure that no lingering adults were there to scold us or beat us back from our prize. Occasionally, one of the grandfathers of the church would be there, drinking coffee and looking at us with indulgent amusement. But often, there was no overseer to witness our rampage. And so we would throw ourselves at the trove before us. Boxes of Popeye's biscuits, golden brown and unlovely lumps of steamy goodness, sat neatly on the folding table in the center of the kitchen. Plates of the large, red-hot style spicey sausage links would sit nearby, sliced in half and fried crispy. Mounds of eggs and bowls of cooled, congeled grits were at hand as well. All of these filled the air with a heavenly rich scent of cooked pork, melted butter and warm bread. We children were no match at all.
I doubt that men dying of hunger and thirst in the Sahara would have thrown themselves into a repast as eagerly as we did. Biscuits would be ripped in half, steaming and fragrant, to accept a wedge of sausage and maybe some eggs as well. Then that first bite, a timeless moment of buttery biscuit and the crisp snap of the sausage casing. I can still taste it, even twenty years after the fact. I wonder, sometimes, if I will ever recall how to take such pleasure in even the simplest of food and to revel in them unabashedly and unreservedly. Certainly, in this manner, it is a good and proper thing to eat as a child would. Current Mood: nostalgic
|Sunday, October 16th, 2005|
|Tom's Herb Column - Where there's a dill, there's a way
For millennia, the dill plant has been a carefully cultivated and revered herb. However, most people today only know of it because of the flavoring of a single type of pickle to which it has given its name. Today, I would like to shed some light on one of my favorite herbs, the often overlooked sibling of caraway and fennel, that most remarkable herb -- dill.
The dill plant, known scientifically as Anethum graveolens
, is primarily a Mediterranean plant which originally grew quite happily in the soil of Greece, Italy, Egypt and Spain. The plant usually grows to between twenty-four and thirty-six inches in height, with one hollow stem and leaves which have long, threadlike segments. In summer, ovoid clusters of yellow flowers form, which form seeds in the autumn. The plant itself resembles fennel, but with a shorter stem and and a matte appearance on the leaves, whereas fennel is more glossy and has multiple stems from one bulb. (Brown, 45) There are carvings on the interior of Egyptian tombs that talk of the medicinal properties of dill. Dill was also known quite well in the Middle East where the Jewish Talmud listed dill as being valuable enough to use as payment for temple tithes. Dill was actually the subject of a rather sore point in the Bible, where Jesus upbraided the pharisees for paying their tithes to the temple in herbs, including dill seed, without tending to the more weighty aspects of their vocation, such as justice and faith. (Matthew 23:23)
The dill plant grew as far east as western Russia and all across the Italian and Iberian Peninsulas. When the Roman Empire began to move north into central and northern Europe, the herb-loving Romans took their beloved dill with them to plant in their colonies in Germany, Britain and even Scandinavia. By medieval times, the dill plant had become a fixture in herb gardens throughout Europe and was highly regarded for its medicinal values as well as its supposed magical properties. The name 'dill' has been taken from two distinct sources. The Old Norse dilla
as well as the Saxon dillan
lent their use to its name. (de la Mare, 37) Both of these words mean 'to lull', which was part of the mystique of the dill plant. It was said that the plant was used by magicians to cast sleeping spells upon the unwary but that carrying the herb would protect one against those same spells. Bundles of dill were thrown into the fires on Saint John's Night along with yarrow, trefoil, verbena, roses and rue as a throwback to pagan ceremonies on Midsummer's Night. (Seymore, 41)
Whatever its supposed mystical properties, dill does have a few actual medicinal properties that can be used today. For example, it is a carminative (antiflatulant) when ingested as well as being a mild photosensitizer (making the skin more sensitive to sunlight). Carvone, which is the active oil in dill, is also an insecticide which increases the effectiveness of other growing herbs to repel insect invaders. (Rinzler, 68) The seeds were regularly eaten to stave off hunger pangs (particularly in long church services) and the ground seeds are still a home remedy for colicky babies when steeped in boiling water and fed to the child. However, dill's main usage is as a condiment and flavoring agent for food. In the sixteenth century, dill leaves (called the weed) and seeds have been used as the primary flavoring agent in pickled cucumbers and gherkins in Europe and Britain. In Scandinavia, dill is especially popular for use in their dish of cold cured salmon called gravlax
. Dill has also been popular since that time for flavoring herb vinegars and wine. Today, many uses of dill have not changed much. It is still the primary ingredient in the flavoring of pickled cucumbers and gherkins and gravlax
is still just as popular in other parts of the world as it is in Scandinavia. The dill seed has sometimes replaced caraway seeds in rye bread, is used in cool summer salads and is added to not only vinegars but also mayonnaise, yogurt dressings and to cream or cottage cheese. (de la Mare, 38)
Dill is relatively easy to grow in the home. Dill likes to be planted in cool weather. In warm winter areas that don't experience a hard frost, you can plant dill in fall or winter. In cooler areas, plant dill a week or two before your last hard frost. After you first plant the dill seeds, plant more seeds again every 10 days or so for a continuous crop. When growing in containers, use a deep container to because of the dill plant's long roots, and remember that you will eventually have a plant that is around three feet tall. Plants grown in containers may require staking. When growing, remember that dill enjoys light but can take some partial shade. Obviously, harvesting your own dill would be preferable to buying it, but when needs must one can go get dill from the supermarket. When shopping for dill, be sure and look for fronds that are firm but not stiff. They should be a vivid green color but not dark green as this is an indication of oxidation and old age. Yellow dill or limp dill means that the plant is REALLY old and should be discarded. When storing, it is helpful to remember that dill does not handle the humid cold of a refrigerator well, so I recommend storing it in a ziplock bag with some paper towels to wick off moisture.
Dill has a flavor that most texts refer to as being a cross between caraway and fennel. Myself, I feel that the flavor of this plant is unique unto itself. It has a very fresh, slightly clorophyllic tang with a floral nose. Honestly, the best description I can give for it is "cool". Not "cool" in the mouth-numbingly arctic cool way of spearmint or the watery chill of cucumber. This is the cool of rich cream or a north wind in fall. Brisk, but invigoratingly so. The seeds are more pungent to taste than the leaves and, as always, be sure to use double the amount of dried dill instead of fresh if you must use dried in the first place. Please remember that dill does not dry well so you may have to use more dried dill than the simple doubling to get the same flavor.
Here are some recipes that I have found that I think highlight the extraordinary taste of dill.( Fish Stew with Calvados, Parsley and DillCollapse )( Dill and Potato CakesCollapse )
Salmon and I have a love-hate relationship. I have had it any number of ways and I simply get back to the fact that I rarely like the flavor of salmon. It's too aggressive for my palate so I rarely eat it. However, the main exception to this is cured salmon, either smoked or in the case of gravlax, salt cured. I have actually made this recipe and can guarantee that it comes out well. I ate an entire fillet in one sitting once, with some dill infused oil, capers and black bread. Very delicious!( Julia's Traditional GravlaxCollapse )
One of my favorite ethnic foods is Indian. I adore Indian food as I adore no other cuisine on the planet. Their use of spices like cardamom, cumin, coriander and cinnamon (not to mention the hot pepper spices!) in savory foods always makes me aware of just how great it is to taste something that challenges your ideas of what spice belongs where. One of the dishes that is sometimes served with hot curry is called raita
, which is technically a bound salad but is often used as a condiment or a side salad. Yogurt based and used to cool the stinging palate after a bite of searingly hot curry, raita is one of my favorite things to eat that has dill in it. If I have some extra cucumbers to hand, I will toss together a raita as a light lunch or dinner. I now give my personal raita recipe to you, the reader. I hope it serves you well.( Cucumber-Dill RaitaCollapse )( Work Cited and ReferencesCollapse )
|Thursday, October 6th, 2005|
|The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Afterword
The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Afterword
orA Few Parting Words
Okay, well this has been a fun little series. Parts one
are all linked here so that you can find them and reference them at need. I'll likely be putting them into memories so that people can find them a little easier in the future. I hope that everyone has enjoyed reading this little series as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
To the uninitiated cook, the best advice I can give is just to cook as often as you can. No amount of reading, wishing or dreaming is going to substitute for actually DOING. I recommend that you always hunt out new dishes that you are keen on and try to learn how to make them a part of your cooking repertoire. When and if the day comes when you are ready to move from uninitiated cook to full fledged foodie, you'll be more prepared to wow your friends and colleagues with your skill and knowledge.
Best of luck to everyone!
|The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Part Three
The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Part Three
orSo I have this Personal Cuisine... NOW what do I do with it?
In my first article
, I said what every uninitiated cook needs in their kitchen. In the second article
, I went over how to put the materials together to allow you the basis for your personal cuisine and how to start building that cuisine from basic recipes. Today, I want to look at a few tips on how to further build that personal cuisine, how an uninitiated cook can integrate it into their day-to-day lives and some things to look for in grocery stores that I think will keep the uninitiated cook's refrigerator and cupboard in fighting trim.
Again, let me restate that the aim of these articles is not to tell people who already know and like to cook how to go about running their kitchens. If that kind of person gets something from my writing, then so much the better. However, I am mainly writing this for the poor college student without the money to spend on huge cookbooks and expensive ingredients or the harried working mom (or dad!) who want to cook something more elaborate than macaroni-and-cheese and meatloaf three nights a week. Think of this as a primer for people who know they want to cook more and better, but have no idea where to start. As always, questions and comments are welcomed and anyone reading this has permission to link and share it.( How to integrate that personal cuisine, things to keep in mind and grocery shopping!Collapse )
Okay, so.. there's only one more installation to go, where I give the uninitiated cook some resources to use and a few parting words. See you guys on Sunday. Current Mood: creative
|The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Part Two
The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Part Two
orHow To Build a Personal Cuisine and Still Have Time to Have a Life
In the last section, I discussed the four tools every home cook, great or small, should have at their disposal. Today, I want to discuss the culture of cookbooks, the hows and whys of food marketing and how people can go about building their own personal cuisine. I would like to take a moment to state that the idea of personal cuisine is not mine nor do I believe that it belongs to the person from whom I got it, John Thorne. I believe that the idea and concept of a personal cuisine has been floating around for a long, long time. However, I do know that Mister Thorne is the only person that I have ever heard or read that refers to the idea as "personal cuisine". I have spoken about Mister Thorne at length in previous posts, so I shall not do so now except to say that anyone who is serious about developing their own personal cuisine owes it to themselves to find copies of his books Simple Cooking
and Outlaw Cook
and read them cover to cover.( Cookbooks, personal cuisine and you.Collapse )
Tomorrow I'm going to examine how you can pull your personal cuisine into your life as an uninitiated cook and generally busy person (aren't we all?), what steps to take in how to plan to actually cook a meal instead of just warming something up in the microwave and what to look for in a grocery store when you are short on time and money.
|The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Part One
The Ha'penny Gourmet's Guide, Part One
orWhat Every Guttersnipe Should Have In Her Cupboard
So I've had numerous people ask me for an overview of what the uninitiated cook should have in their cupboards and on their shelves when it comes to food, cookbooks or equipment. Now, I am going to take the definition of "uninitiated cook" further than simply being someone who has not worked in the food service industry or one who has not been to culinary school. I am also going to figure that this means someone who has not spent a great deal of time and/or energy to attempt to become a moderately good amateur cook. This means the bulk of people who really would like to learn just enough cooking know-how to impress their friends, loved ones and coworkers when needed and feed themselves with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of yum. And you know what? That's cool by me. I can get pretty food snobby about some things, but I figure anyone who is willing to do more than just nuke a TV dinner or order out for pizza every day is a few steps ahead of the game.
I'm going to do a few quasi-articles on cooking and a kind of quasi how-to guide. I'm going to do my best to give you what I think you need on here and I encourage everyone who likes what I have to say or felt it was useful to spread it around so that other people can also get a leg-up. I am intentionally NOT cross-posting this to any of the cooking communities on here because I don't want to seem totally god-awful pretensious and because there are enough people on those communities who aren't going to need this that it would be a bandwidth chewer over there. Right, so enough of all that.. let's get down to business.
So you want to be able to cook for yourself and your friends, but you don't really know how and you think that it's all massive amounts of work and huge expense and your usual reaction when mulling it over is 'Christ, let's just order a frikking pizza.' Well, be of good cheer, citizen. You're not alone in this. But cooking doesn't have to be a trial and it doesn't have to be a huge investment in time and money. Really, there are only a few things that you need equipment-wise that will get and that's what this little blurb is about. This is going to be the top four things that every person of college age or older should have in their kitchen, kitchenette, next to their hotplate or whatever your cooking situation is.( Four Things Everyone Should HaveCollapse )
Tomorrow, I'll go over the best cookbooks for the uninitiated cook to have on their shelves, what to avoid and what to do to best enhance your personal cuisine.